Healthier meat products and sensory challenges

We live in a world where consumers have become more aware of the relationship between health and diet. If we look at things like functional foods, we have all noticed an increase in offers from probiotic enriched beverages to cereal bars to protein and fibre fortification, healthier meat products and meat analogues. Looking at these specifically, I guess you might have already tried some, and you might want to agree with me that, when choosing a meat analogue (plant-based burgers, for example), one of the things that we consider are also the sensory aspects. A food indeed needs to be safe and healthy, but when formulating a healthier meat product or a meat analogue, a drastic reformulation process is put in place, and the use of sensory is a crucial tool to help develop a successful product.

Which are the strategies to produce healthier processed meat products? 

Meat and processed meat products are widely consumed thanks to their sensory properties and nutritional components (high biological value proteins, minerals, vitamins B6 and B12). However, processed meat products are also recognized for their high fat, saturated fatty acids, cholesterol, salt, and synthetic additives. Meat products are associated with diseases like obesity, type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a variety of cancers. This highlights the need for a transition toward healthier processed meat products and the development of plant-based meat analogues. However, developing a healthier meat product presents a sensory challenge. All of us consumers are not willing to accept reductions in sensory quality for nutritional improvements, which is one of the main challenges for new product development and specifically meat products.

Strategies for the formulation of healthier meat products are:

  • incorporation of probiotics, prebiotics, and symbiotics;
  • inclusion of plant-based protein to replace animal protein; 
  • fortification/enrichment with minerals, vitamins, and bioactive compounds.

Two of the current trends are related to:

  • sodium reduction 
  • fat reduction

Some of the main challenges related to the sensory aspects of reformulated meat products have to do with ‘strange taste’, ‘off-flavor’, ‘dry’, and ‘gelatinous texture.’ Any change in one sensory dimension can influence another when developing a new product or reformulating a classing one; flavour is usually the most affected. For example, when sodium is reduced, the ‘salty’ attribute decreases as NaCl is reduced, thus leaving the product ‘tasteless’. Sodium, in fact, enhances typical meat tastes like ‘meaty’ and ‘savoury’ notes. NaCl also had to do with the water holding capacity of processed meat products, which means that, when decreased, this can affect taste attributes and texture. Salt can be reduced with salt substitutes such as potassium chloride (KCl); however, that imparts a metallic taste to the product, and flavour enhancers are then needed to mask undesirable tastes.

As for fat reduction, this will influence the lipid profile of the meat product and will also affect texture and taste when reformulated with liquid oils. Animal fat is solid at room temperature and by replacing it with liquid oils we might affect texture and mouthfeel of such products.

 What is suggested is to use fat replacers that have similar physical characteristics to animal fats. Many researchers use pre-emulsified liquid oils (emulsified with sodium alginate or milk protein concentrate, plant-based protein alternatives). This would help achieve similar textural properties to the fat we find in products like mortadella, for example.

Another alternative to replacing animal fat is structuring oils within a structured matrix like a gel network.

These are some of the novel strategies used to improve the sensory quality of healthier meat products that show minimal sensory changes; however, panelists and consumers still report negative effects, which means that further studies on food structure are needed on both the reformulation side and sensory analyses.

I would highly suggest reading the article linked below to have a better understanding and also look at their reference list for an in-depth look at the topic:

Erick Saldaña, Thais Cardoso Merlo, Iliani Patinho, Juan D Rios-Mera, Carmen J Contreras-Castillo, Miriam M Selani. 2021. Use of sensory science for the development of healthier processed meat products: a critical opinion. Current Opinion in Food Science, Volume 40, Pages 13-19, ISSN 2214-7993.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cofs.2020.04.012 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214799320300424)

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