Day 13-Label Lingo
What’s in a food label? Uncured, naturally cured or no nitrate or nitrite added.
The biggest difference between cured and uncured is the fact that the uncured uses natural curing agents, such as celery powder, which transforms into nitrite when it is processed. Example is uncured products have labels with: “No Nitrates or Nitrites added except those naturally in celery powder or juice”. So whether it is a manufactured version that is commonly used or the natural version (celery powder, etc.) the color formation and stability come from this source.
The rise in popularity of uncured meats may have more to do with marketing and perception than actual fact. Just the word, “uncured” infers the idea of not being treated.
The history behind curing meat began because without refrigeration, there wasn’t a way to store food and stock up for hard times. Curing meat and fish goes back to the third century BC when the Greeks used sesame oil to cure hams. Later, the Greeks created salt gardens, using the dry salt for curing. They also began smoking their meats, which is another form of preservation.
In the Middle Ages, people treated meat with salt and smoke. In the 1800’s, the curing process evolved significantly with the discovery of the benefits of nitrates and nitrites to prevent spoilage and enhance the flavor and texture of the meat.
You can usually tell whether a meat is cured by its texture, color and smell. Why is a ham’s texture different from a pork roast even when the two cuts come from the same animal? When you salt the meat, it leaves muscle fibers slightly denser as the proteins contract.
Also, uncured meats are more pale than cured meats. Consider the difference between a dark red roast beef and an uncured piece of pork. Curing also creates complex flavors created by yeast, enzymes and favorable bacteria during the process.
It’s all a matter of how the meats are preserved: Cured meats use chemicals and additives while uncured meats rely on natural salts and flavorings. Cured meats have nitrates. Uncured don’t.
What is the difference between nitrite and nitrate? And what is its purpose in meat?
Nitrite is added to processed meats like ham, bacon, and sausages (hotdogs, bologna, etc) for 4 reasons:
1. Sodium Nitrate prevents the growth of Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that causes botulism). Botulism can shut down your nervous system and that’s not healthy. It also helps control other dangerous pathogens and bacteria that cause spoilage. It helps keep meat safe.
2. Sodium Nitrite is a very powerful antioxidant and keeps the meat from going rancid. The fat in processed meat can get funky flavors if allowed to oxidize and nitrite helps to keep that from happening. Ever notice why a package of ham can last for weeks in your fridge while other things go bad in a few days?
3. It gives cured meats their distinct pink color. The nitrite reacts with the muscle protein and changes it to pink, and it stays pink for a much longer time than fresh meat stays red.
4. It gives cured meats their distinct flavor. That unique “hammy” and smoky flavor of a ham or that unique bacon flavor in bacon comes from the nitrite.
Also, without nitrite, several products would completely lose their identity. The USDA has standards of identity that regulate what is a hot dog, bologna, or even bacon and nitrite is an important ingredient for making them what they are. Without it, they are no longer “cured.” This means bacon without nitrite would no longer be bacon, but would instead be cooked pork belly.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL
When trying to determine whether or not a pork product is traditionally-cured, look for the following on the ingredients label:
The word “uncured”. This almost always means a traditional curing process was used.
No “sodium nitrite,” “sodium nitrate,” or “mono-sodium glutamate (MSG)”. If any of these words are on the label, it is NOT a traditionally cured meat.
A “lactic-acid” starter culture. This is a known, safe way for giving the good bacteria a jump start to help preserve the meat during the smoking process and has its roots in our long history of traditionally-pickled meats. It will almost always mean that the meat was traditionally-cured, as meats cured with nitrites or nitrates don’t need the jump-start.
A blend of salt, spices, and a sweetener. Traditionally-cured meats will contain a blend of these ingredients in order to create the complex flavor and texture associated with particular cuts or products.