In an overpopulated world, manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to meet demand, there simply isn’t enough livestock to conveniently supply every member of society. Consequently we are looking to maximise every bit of livestock we have whether it be using cuts of meat we would usually have discarded, or even utilising the skin, organs and hoof. The subject of processed meat is rarely discussed because of the graphic truths that often come to light, the problem is many of us don’t even realise what it is we’re eating, and more still don’t have a choice!
Cheap and cheerful
Processed meats are popular because they taste good (for what they are), sort of look and feel like meat, provide some nutrition…and are cheap, very cheap in comparison to their lean, natural alternative. It’s a simple rule, the less lean mass (actual meat) in a meat the cheaper it is, so as a result the manufacturers (the term manufacturer should raise suspicions in itself) replace meat with other food sources including carbohydrate, fat, sugar and even dairy! There are a number of reasons for the addition of these ingredients, and believe it or not, often it's so the manufacturers can meet certain 'standards'! The addition of salt, starch and sugar is relatively straight forward, this is added to improve palatability of what is effectively reconstituted, processed slurry (macerated animal remains). These also increase shelf life and the structural integrity of the 'food stuff'. Carbohydrates, even lactose (carb in milk) are added as a meat 'filler', the addition of fillers mean manufacturers can reduce the % meat and therefore cost to both manufacturer and consumer. The addition of lactose might also act as a binding agent for water, as well as creating a 'creamy' product texture. The addition of any of the above ingredients will be to either increase protein count (known as an extender), to improve consistency, shape and appearance (known as a filler), or to improve cohesiveness (binding agent)…all with the overall aim to minimise cost! There are various kinds of processed meats including cured meats, dried meats and raw cooked meats to name but a few, but some of the most commonly consumed meats in today’s society include fresh processed meat products.
Fresh processed meat products
These include sausages, burgers, patties or kebabs. What makes these processed products unique from one another is generally the method of portioning. Sausages are encased in an intestine, burgers are compacted together and cut into disc like portions and so on…what all of these meat products have in common is that at some point the original meat will have been comminuted, minced or sliced from muscle meat along with adhering animal fat, or fat that’s added separately. Salt, phosphate, rusk, flours and starches are often added to these meats to occupy space, bind and add flavour. The common composition of a pork sausage is around 60% animal tissue (meat, fats), 15% water, 25% extenders and fillers (usually wheat flour, rusk, corn starch). As for the burgers, because of the rising cost of red meat, alternative meat sources such as poultry (chicken, turkey) may be added with the beef to reduce cost and potentially improve palatability. The fresh, raw processed meats are then cooked by the consumer prior to consumption as they are not palatable in their original state.
The ‘Beef Burger’
The burger as we know it originates from minced meat, usually in a disc-like shape with diameters of 80-150mm and 5-20mm height. Fast-food outlets are the largest distributers of burgers, so naturally they are policed heavily for quality assurance. Their burgers percentage of meat have slowly dwindled in recent years, but remain quality assured despite the lower beef count. Burgers in general were historically always made from beef, but in recent years chicken and mutton burgers have started to become more common. The problem with the growing demand for burgers and other processed meats is that sourcing of the meat has become harder. Consequently manufacturers are using other animal tissues such as fats or connective tissue (tendons and ligaments) to increase the nutritional components derived from the animal. Quantities depend on the type and quality of the products, so the more expensive, higher percentage of meat burgers will use far less mechanically deboned meats (MDM) or non-meat ingredients. The Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) explains that during the mincing process salt and spices (mainly black and white pepper, as well as herbs, garlic or onions) are added. However, some cheaper industrial formulations will add textured soy protein (extender) as a non-meat ingredient in quantities of up to 25% per burger. Other added non-meat ingredients might also include rusk, breadcrumbs and dried flakes from roots and tubers. So if you can, opt for the higher percentage meat products, aim for meats which are either freshly minced in front of you or are certified as 100% beef, otherwise you can’t be too sure as to ‘how much’ of ‘what’ is in your ‘meat’ product.
FAO, (2014). Fresh Processed Meat Products. Retrieved 9th June, 2014, from http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/ai407e/AI407E10.htm FAO, (2014). Meat products with high levels of extenders and fillers. Retrieved 9th June, 2014, from http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/ai407e/AI407E16.htm