The clean label cured and dried meat category is growing in Asia, with no signs of slowing. ARIEF FACHRUDIN and the Asian Agribiz team set out to understand this trend better.
The clean label cured and dried meat category is growing in Asia, with no signs of slowing. ARIEF FACHRUDIN and the Asian Agribiz team set out to understand this trend better.
Consumers are paying more attention to what goes into the products they consume as they strive to make better-educated purchasing decisions. And while shorter labels with simpler ingredients have become more attractive, consumers still do not want to trade cleaner labels for diminished quality.
The two main ingredients in the cured and dried meat product category, nitrite and phosphate, have been shown in studies to cause cell damage and morph into molecules that cause cancer, under certain conditions.
Responding to this, some meat processors have set out to clean up their labels by replacing chemicals with natural ingredients that consumers can better relate to.
Some have started using materials such as celery powder with starter culture to replace nitrites. Likewise, phosphates appear as artificial additives on labels, prompting some processors to find alternative ways to bind water with starches and other natural alternatives.
There are also those looking at means to increase shelf life by using blends of fruit and spice extracts with vinegar, rather than chemicals.
Thailand slowly complying
Consumer demand for natural, additive-free food is slowly making an impact in Thailand. As consumers seek healthier food, more clean label meats are gradually emerging from processors there.
“Clean labeling is still slow. Public opinion is changing, though, and the number of clean label options will grow,” said Joe Sloane, owner of Bo.Lan & Sloane’s Aharn Farang, which manufactures high-quality fresh sausages, cured ham and bacon.
“Sadly, it’s still more about the length of time they can sit on shelves, rather than reducing chemicals over here.”
Mr Sloane gets his pork and poultry supplies from small farms across Thailand. He says doing so gives him an advantage as smallholders are more transparent about how they raise their animals.
Nitrite is the only additive used in cured products branded under Sloane’s. But while health-conscious consumers shy away from this, an alternative would likely mean his products will have shorter shelf life, he said.
Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration has been cracking down on the overuse of additives in recent years, and many companies have still been found to be using nitrites over the legal limit. The agency recently enforced a reduction in the nitrite limit from 150 ppm to 80 ppm.
Under the Ministry of Public Health’s food labeling regulations, frozen and processed meats, including sausages, ham and cured meats, are required to display their ingredients, including additives.
Mr Sloane said he has so far been unsuccessful in finding the right natural alternatives to nitrites. His company was involved in trials for a natural shelf life extender last year, with more to come.
“Although supermarkets still prefer products with a longer shelf life, slowly they are becoming aware that customers are moving away from over-processed items and want something more natural,” he told Asian Meat Magazine.
The reality in Indonesia
While clean label has been booming in Europe, it is still too early to discern this trend in Indonesia, where most consumers are unaware of it.
“In Europe, clean label cured meat has been trending for the last five years, but here in Indonesia, not many people know the definition of clean label. Clean label is more popular in the pet food industry,” said Andriadi Winaga, Director of Dua Mitra Kerjasama (DMK), which supplies functional additives and natural ingredients for meat processing.
Mr Winaga believes there needs to be more awareness about clean label in the country.
“Ingredients for producing clean label cured meats are available in Indonesia, but demand does not yet exist. That’s why the meat processing industry is not looking to move in this direction yet,” he told Asian Meat Magazine.
“I support clean label because it’s about our health. My company also only sells healthy and natural ingredients to support the trend. We now need to make efforts to educate consumers about clean label and its benefits through seminars and promotions through different media channels.
“It is important to engage chefs in such a campaign. No less important, the government needs to create supportive regulations and strictly control their implementation,” he added.
Manufacturers of clean label cured meats in Indonesia have their eyes on middle-class families, millennials and people with the means to pay more than USD 6.30/kg for their premium products, Mr Winaga said.
“I see that home-curers and small-scale producers are most likely to take the clean label route. They target niche markets with their premium products and their customers believe their claims,” he said.
Bali Highlands Organik is among these small-scale producers. Based in Bali and founded by an American, the firm uses alternative natural ingredients supplied by DMK to replace the nitrite in its cured meats and sausages, which mainly target foreign tourists and expats.
In clean label production, insoluble fiber is a key functional additive. Based on Mr Winaga’s company’s tests, the fiber can reduce the need for phosphate while improving texture, binding water and preventing syneresis—the sudden release of moisture contained within protein molecules.
“The dose of insoluble fiber is low, only 1-2% of the total dough. Since it is tasteless and odorless, it could also be used to replace isolated soy protein. The lowest price for this ingredient in Indonesia is around USD 1.4/kg,” he said.
DMK sells Unicell insoluble fiber from InterFiber from Europe. It mixes the product with other functional additives into its own blend, Emulmix.
Transglutaminase is another functional additive used to replace phosphate. This enzyme can improve meat structure so the meat can bind more water.
“This enzyme is like a glue, connecting one protein to another, so it’s widely used in restructured meat. Some Indonesian cured meat producers have started using it, especially those who produce bacon from restructured meat. I believe more producers will use this enzyme because the result is real,” said Mr Winaga.
Transglutaminase is available in powder and liquid forms. The powder is sensitive to temperature so users need to pay attention to its storage. Not many producers are familiar with using transglutaminase in its liquid form, however, prompting DMK to develop the enzyme in temperate-stable powder form.
“We choose to sell transglutaminase in liquid form. We import this from China’s Kinry Food Ingredients. Besides replacing phosphate, it improves food properties like texture, firmness, elasticity, viscosity, thermostability and liquid retention. It reduces the ripening time for dry-cured sausages and doesn’t affect the flavor of the final product,” he said, adding that the price of transglutaminase stands at around USD 19/kg.
Not all producers in Indonesia are aware about the research into nitrite and its worrying findings, Mr Winaga said.
“To replace nitrite, we distribute natural shelf-life solutions from Handary of Belgium. Their products are natural preservatives without E numbers. Our customer Bali Highlands Organik has been using these products,” he said.
Handary’s clean label solutions aim to prevent yeast and molds, Listeria, Salmonella, E coli, rancidity and color change, as well as reduce and replace sodium, nitrite and phosphate.
“If we use fiber, transglutaminase and natural preservatives, we don’t need phosphate, nitrite and isolated soy protein anymore,” Mr Winaga added.
Only a few follow
In the Philippines, the most popular cured meats are traditional breakfast trio tocino, a sweetened cured meat, longganisa, or cured native sausages, and dried meat cured with salt and spices in the form of tapa.
These meats are produced either at large and medium-sized processing facilities or by mom-and-pop curers from homes and sold through wet markets. These small producers still dominate the industry, and most continue to use nitrites, phosphates and other chemical additives.
The government has yet to issue directives covering the use of natural curing ingredients. Though some regulations do exist, processors admit these are rarely implemented.
Nevertheless, there have been moves towards clean labeling, especially among established processors serving well-known brands like Mekeni, Pampanga’s Best and CDO. These now publish “No Salitre”—a mix of salt-peter and potassium nitrate—prominently on their packaging.
Cotton Sevilla, owner of Sevilla & Sons Sausage Co, said vitamin C and sodium erythorbate are starting to be used in natural curing. But as these are mostly imported, most curers seem to be unaware of them, and those who are show little interest in using them.
Producers overwhelmingly continue to use chemical preservatives, some perhaps at unsafe levels, said Ms Sevilla. Though Filipino consumers are becoming conscious of the dangers of some food additives, many believe the chemicals are used at acceptable levels.
For the most part, government regulators focus their inspections on registered manufacturers, leaving smaller, home-based and wet market producers unpoliced. Ms Sevilla does not find this surprising, since their number and the size of their operations makes it difficult for regulators to keep up with them.
“Only a few follow rulings by the FDA and the National Meat Inspection Service. They think curing salt is to add color, so they just add more,” she said.
Asian Meat Magazine visited two wet markets where pork sellers admitted to using nitrites, nitrates, curing salt and phosphates, though they would not reveal how much they used, saying only that they had been using the same recipes for years.
While Asian Meat Magazine was there, no inspections took place, and it is likely the same would be true at other wet markets. Furthermore, many of the cured meats processed by small producers were sold without labels.
Until consumers start to pay more attention to the ingredients they use, cured meat producers will probably continue with their current practices. At the same time, moves to use safer and healthier ingredients will continue to push ahead, but at a plodding rate, while bigger meat processors and consumer advocacy groups strive to raise awareness among consumers.
A developing trend
In Vietnam, where medium-quality sausages, cured meats and bacon are popular, clean labels have not yet become a major concern for consumers.
The country has issued regulations governing permissible preservative levels and nitrite content, but these have been applied unevenly and the level of awareness among consumers is still low.
However, a developing new high-end food segment is increasingly featuring cured meats made from natural ingredients.
This niche segment is small and limited to consumers in urban areas who are willing to spend more for quality products. That it exists shows there is interest among manufacturers and consumers for clean label.
Sfood clean products
Sfood Clean Food, a young Vietnamese premium brand, stopped using nitrite in its bacon products three years ago.
“It is still not obligatory, so some businesses still use [nitrite],” Pham Thi Duong Quynh Huong, Sfood’s owner, told Asian Meat Magazine.
“Sfood chose a clean product line. That’s why nitrite and other unsafe ingredients are not used. Instead, they are replaced by safer materials.”
According to Ms Pham, these ingredients are available, though most mass-producers of cured meat will not choose them because they are expensive.
The Vietnamese are more concerned about the use of preservatives in food. Ms Huong said removing preservatives would not be too difficult, though it would force more investment in air conditioners to maintain cool temperatures during processing, storage, transportation and for retail display.
“It comes to the initial mindset of the player. We chose the high-end segment, which means we have to invest not only in safe ingredients, but also in equipment and logistics. With no preservatives, our products have a short shelf-life,” she said.
Sfood imports materials from Germany, Australia and other countries, which increases the price of its finished products. Consumers who are concerned over food safety are willing to pay higher prices, she added.
Singapore and Malaysia may be neighbors but when it comes to food safety matters, the differences can be glaring.
While Singapore appears to do everything it can to maintain food safety, Malaysia has problems with consistent enforcement and accountability. Both countries have regulations governing food preservatives and additives, but they vary widely when it comes to inspection and enforcement.
In Malaysia, the Ministry of Health approves the use of food additives or preservatives. Only safe additives are permitted up to a specified maximum level. Under this, any food containing additives must declare them on the label.
However, a 2016 study by University Malaya’s Department of Science and Technology found a third of 300 food products tested failed the tolerance limit under the Food Act 1983, while the majority did not did not meet local regulations.
Ryan’s Grocery’s alternative selection
Ryan’s Grocery’s in Singapore supplies organic and hormone-free beef, lamb and pork.
“The store’s butchers make their own ham and bacon using Borrowdale Pork, which is free of nitrates and preservatives. This can be seen in the dull, natural color of their pork products,” said Chu Mei Fern, of Ryan’s Grocery.
Natural ingredients such as celery, garlic, salt, pepper and brown sugar are used for curing. This taste differentiation makes the products popular, especially among consumers with special dietary needs.
Oloiya’s wholesome bak kwa
Asian Meat Magazine met with the General Manager of Malaysian bak kwa producer Oloiya, Raymond Khue, and its General Manager, Peter Khue, to find out their stance on clean label cured and dried meats.
“Naturally we adhere to local regulations when it comes to labeling, and as one of the prominent players in the market, we also want to give our customers safe food,” said Peter Khue.
However, as they gear up to launch Oloiya’s bak kwa as a fashionable snack, the Khues are conscious of what they are putting out on the market. Their multi-flavored bak kwa products are produced using freshly slaughtered pork that comes to their processing plant daily.
“To ensure longer shelf life and minimum use of preservative agents, we focus our efforts on the quality of meat as well as packaging,” Raymond Khue said.
Their new Bak-Off bak kwa snack brand carries the necessary labeling required by regulations. Bak-Off’s label also states that it uses internationally accepted acidity regulators to prevent molding, but does not contain artificial preservatives.
Slow but sure journey
Clean labeling has carved a slow path in South Asia as consumer awareness there catches up with world trends. Meat producers, natural ingredient suppliers and sales agents in the region are of the view that there is immense potential for clean label products as more people become familiar with what it all means.
The trend began in India a few years ago after reports cited the links between certain additives to cancer, said Arindom Hazarika, Co-founder of Arohan Foods, which specializes in pork sausages, bacon, ham and salami.
Mr Hazarika told Asian Meat Magazine that there has been more interest and concerns following the release of the reports.
“As a result, many manufacturers have consciously avoided recipes that need a lot of curing salts and agents,” he said. His company is looking into moving to natural extracts and has taken up experimenting with certain spices.
Interest in clean label products with natural additives is mainly among the elite and upper middle-class consumers. As South Asian markets are notoriously price sensitive, the clean label movement has become associated mostly with premium and organic ranges.
Mr Hazarika says interest in clean label is mostly concentrated in India’s tier 1 cities. Elsewhere, the market is still developing. In Pakistan for example, only around 5% of the poultry market involves further processed meats, so interest in clean label is not widespread.
Marketing clean label
In Bangladesh, where the processed meats market is bigger, a few companies have so far come on board the clean label movement. One of these, Kazi Food Industries, has launched the Kazifarms Kitchen brand, which is made from vegetable-fed chicken, has no harmful preservatives, contains no antibiotic residue and contains no tasting salt.
Like Indians, Bangladeshi consumers are price sensitive, but Kazi has been able to tap into health-conscious consumers who are willing to pay more for ready-to-eat meals.
In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, the market for clean label seems more promising as companies like Keells Food Products strive to keep ahead of the competition by removing all nitrates in their sausage and meatball products.
Keells’s Head of Quality Assurance and Research and Development, Nirosh Lalantha, told Asian Meat Magazine the company has been looking for natural extracts since 2012 to help it move away from using nitrates.
“By 2014 we were able to offer nitrate-free sausages and meatballs,” said Mr Lalantha. Since then, the company has been branding its products as having no added preservatives.
“Natural preservatives that use vegetables like beetroot are produced in-house and come from local ingredients. We have got a working formula for it now,” he added.
Switching to nitrate-free has not been easy, said Mr Lalantha, as packaging and storage have had to be changed to maintain the previous shelf life.
Norfolk Foods Managing Director Mohamed Ziyaudeen told Asian Meat Magazine his company had solved its packaging issues through a combination of common sense and technology for its breaded products like Kochchi bites, which do not contain artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.
Mr Ziyaudeen explained that by using of the right combination of natural ingredients, and managing the meat properly, Norfolk Foods was able to get the same result as it had with artificial preservatives. In addition, the company was also the first to use spiral freezing to ensure a longer shelf life.
As interest in the natural additive market grows, agents like MAM Fawzan, Sales Director of AEA Machinery, has been looking to bring international suppliers like Van Hees to the Sri Lankan market.
“At present there are no local suppliers of natural meat additives, but I believe that this is an opportunity for companies like Van Hees, as producers become more interested in natural alternatives,” he said.
Going all natural
In India, Kerala-based Arjuna Natural is a regional company that has capitalized on growing interest in natural additives. Its Executive Director, Antony Kunjachan, told Asian Meat Magazine that the market has been evolving but still has not witnessed a wholesale switch to natural alternatives.
“However, a few brands have ventured into the 100% natural meat segment, which has a discerning customer base willing to pay extra for an all-natural tag,” he said.
Arjuna, which has been around for a quarter-century, markets Extenfo, a natural extract to enhance the shelf life and quality of a product without compromising its health and sensory attributes.
“The natural food protection solution is a combination of anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-oxidant components isolated from select natural sources,” said Mr Kunjachan. Natural extracts, essential oils from spices such as rosemary, green tea, oregano and thyme, and natural organic acids are used in its preparation.
Extenfo can be customized depending on how it will be used. It was formulated to target a certain microorganism that leads to spoilage. It has also helped in replacing artificial additives such as tertiary butylhydroquinone, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate and calcium propionates.
The push for clean label in India and Bangladesh has been mainly driven by consumer demand rather than government regulation. Both countries permit the use of nitrates for curing meat up to a certain level. In Sri Lanka, however, the industry expects further regulation to be passed soon to control the use of artificial preservatives, especially in products like ham and bacon.
Clean label portfolio from Corbion
According to ingredients provider Corbion, developing a solid formulation that focuses on safety and shelf life, and maintains quality, taste and texture, is critical to ensure consumer acceptance and, ultimately, market success.
Corbion markets the Verdad range of natural ingredients that can help meat processors simplify their labels while extending shelf life and improving yield. The company says they can also enhance safety, reduce sodium and boost the quality and stability of products.
Research has shown that as much as 40% sodium reduction can be achieved in meat products with no impact on texture or taste.
Verdad is produced by the fermentation of sugars, which enhances flavors, improves texture and increases microbiological stability without also fermenting the food product itself.