U.S – The Agricultural and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided funding for Texas A&M University researchers to work on developing a nitrite-free technique for curing meat.

Nitrites and nitrates, which are frequently added to foods like cured meat to maintain quality and lengthen shelf life, are gaining more and more attention as studies about potential harmful health effects are published.

Due to the curing process, which involves adding nitrites or nitrates by smoking, having the potential to generate cancer-causing compounds, the World Health Organization (WHO) classed processed beef as carcinogenic in 2015.

Of late, regulatory authorities like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have questioned the food safety risk posed by nitrites and nitrates.

The French parliament has even approved a bill that calls for a progressive reduction in the use of nitrite in cured meats.

Moreover, research suggests that nitrite food additives may raise the incidence of type 2 diabetes.

In response to the health risks connected with cured meat, manufacturers have created a method for “curing” meat products that only use naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites.

Currently, meat products are cured using an alternative approach that uses vegetable powder made from celery as a natural supply of nitrite.

Such products, however, could taste more like vegetables and be thought of as inferior to traditionally cured meat.

Dr. Wes Osburn, Associate Professor of Meat Science in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Animal Science, has been searching for an inventive way to produce the residual nitrite and nitric oxide (NO) required to cure meat and poultry products without the use of any additional nitrite sources, whether they be natural or synthetic.

He is looking into the viability of a novel amino acid alternative curing technique for meat with U.S$500,000 funding from the USDA.

Dr. Osburn thinks it is likely that adding the amino acid L-arginine to meats may activate the nitric oxide synthase (NOS) enzyme present within, given that nitrites and nitrates occur naturally in humans and some diets.

L-arginine is transformed by NOS into NO and L-citrulline, another amino acid.

NO gives cured meats their distinctive pink color, which is a result of curing. Moreover, two NO molecules can combine to produce nitrite, an antioxidant and antibacterial that extends the shelf life and safety of products.

It is anticipated that the amino acid-based alternative curing procedure developed by Dr. Osburn will do away with the requirement to add sodium nitrite either directly or indirectly to cured beef products.

The study will also help us comprehend the various biochemical processes that work together to maintain the NOS system’s efficiency.

The research team intends to create operational and processing guidelines so that meat processors can use the NOS system to consistently and predictably cure meat and poultry products.

But first, it’s necessary to test the process’s viability using diverse beef, hog, and poultry products under various circumstances.

It is yet unknown whether NOS will produce enough NO to provide a suitable color for cured meat and enough residual nitrite to guarantee the food’s safety regardless of the product.

The prototype amino acid-cured ham product that Dr. Osburn is creating will go through a manufacturing study for cured color pigment, volatile compounds, sensory aspects, textural analysis, and shelf life.

The research team will experiment with a number of parameters, including the arginine concentration, meat pH, temperature, and duration, to find the ideal circumstances for NO production.

The study is currently in its second phase, and production in the pilot plant will follow soon.

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