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Preserving the Color of Meat

January 24, 2015

hamPreservation is a hot bed of misinformation, information and partly true information when it meets social media. Many want to ban all processed meats – banish the safety that comes from extending the use of meats. My grandparents would shake their heads.

As Adam Danforth mentions in his book, Butchering, preserving intentionally interferes with myoglobin – people eat with their eyes first. How much is thrown out if it doesn’t look good? Point made!

Chemical Preservation. Cured products often use nitrites, a chemical added to meats to prevent bacterial growth and control the final color. During the curing process, nitrites convert to nitric oxide, a compound that can bind with myoglobin, effectively taking the place of oxygen. This turns myoglobin pink and is why bacon, ham and other cured meats have a pinkish hue. The myoglobin’s bond with nitric oxide is much more stable than its bond with oxygen, so the color has better staying power.

Preservation with Carbon Dioxide. Bright red meat sells better than brown meat does, but keeping it red is a challenge. (Remember, myoglobin loses oxygen easily and turns brown.) To keep meat red, processors pump carbon dioxide into packages of meat for sale. Carbon dioxide reacts with myoglobin in the same manner that nitric oxide does: it replaces oxygen, forms a stable bond, and turns the myglobin reddish-pink. The color will not be as pronounced as the cherry red of the true oxymyoglobin, but it will certainly look better than the metmyoglobin brown and is therefore able to stay appealing in a meat case for a longer period.

I quote this because it’s an excellent, concise explanation! It’s easy to understand and it takes out all the complicated shop talk. It’s there because we like to buy fresh looking meat! It’s there because not everyone buys from a butcher, or raises their own meat, and sometimes it’s a few days, or a week, before that meat gets from the slaughter facility to your home…and in those few days, keeping it safe to eat AND appetizing looking is critical. We know what carbon dioxide is – we exhale it. There is much misunderstanding about nitrites but that’s another post!


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