Posted: January 14, 2021
Author: Ralph Krawczyk, Sr. Food Scientist

Today’s clean label trend has a long history in meat protein, springing from consumer health and wellness trends. Over the course of several decades, there have been efforts to reduce fat, sodium, and a wide range of ingredients in food and beverages. In short, we find ourselves in a clean label revolution covering not only meats, but the food industry at large. Top trends are for shorter, clean, natural labels, including no MSG.

The term “clean label” is used frequently, but it can sometimes be tough to determine what that means in development. In general, clean label products are considered to contain easily recognizable ingredients that you could find or make in your kitchen, free from chemical-sounding names, without artificial ingredients, and with no MSG. Another term you hear in relation to clean labels is “natural.” The very definition of what is natural is a little ambiguous, leading to gray areas in food and meat protein. To help aid in development and try to set up clear parameters for development, natural food retailers have “no-no” lists of ingredients that can be used as a guide to what ingredients they would like avoided when possible. This can be challenging for developers as consumers seek products that remove these so-called “bad” ingredients but keep the same great flavor of the original.

The meat industry has been responding to this demand for change to satisfy consumers, but within limits of consumer acceptance. For example, while 90% lean ground beef is available, it can be dry and not as desirable in flavor as say a 70% version. The USDA has been overseeing these changes, ensuring that products are clearly labeled to meet expectations.

Clean Protein Labels

The question becomes – what constitutes a “clean” protein label? There have been several efforts to develop around consumer desires throughout recent decades, so let’s review a few.

Saturated Fat

The meat industry in general has reduced the amount of fat within retail meat cuts. Much more fat is now trimmed before going into the tray pack we see at the grocery store. Some sausage products are now produced with chicken and other poultry for less fat and leaner meats; these are considered more desirable to some consumers. And then there is bacon, where all of this goes out the window. Consumers are more health-conscious, but they also allow for the occasional indulgence. Fat (especially in bacon) is where the flavor is when it comes to meats.


Trending diets, like the DASH diet, place an emphasis on consuming less sodium. Before removing salt from meat formulas, one needs to consider the many unique functional attributes salt brings to meat. A couple primary reasons salt is added are flavor enhancement, and extracting the natural soluble meat protein, which helps bind ground and emulsified meat products. Other important uses include antimicrobial protection, preservation, and water retention. For these reasons, salt cannot be completely removed.

Many older, heritage meat formulas have been revised to reduce salt content without compromising flavor. It is widely known that potassium chloride can be used as a salt substitute. However, there is a limit to how much salt can be replaced with it due to a metallic or bitter type flavor that potassium chloride brings. Generally speaking, only a portion (10-30%) of the salt can be replaced before off flavors are detected. Sometimes the use of flavor masking technologies can be helpful. At Wixon, our proprietary Wix-Fresh™ RSS solution can achieve higher reduced-sodium levels without the bitter or metallic off-notes often associated with potassium chloride.


Because of a heightened negative perception of MSG and flavor enhancers in meat protein,  hydrolyzed vegetable proteins and autolyzed yeast extracts were widely used in the past to replace MSG effectively. Today’s consumers are well educated that HVPs and AYEs contain MSG and I&G though, so they no longer want these items on the label either. Natural flavor, like our Wix-Fresh™ Umami flavor modifier, is now being used to meet a cleaner label standard.


Traditionally, meat processors used salt and sodium phosphates to most effectively enhance moisture retention. These two ingredients effectively control moisture loss in products containing lower levels of extension. When the processor reaches higher levels of added moisture, other ingredients such as carrageenan, soy protein and starches are more effective for moisture retention. Sodium phosphates are highly functional in binding water in meat products, and there is really no cost-effective replacement that performs equally. Consumers may perceive phosphate as a chemical sounding name and prefer it not be present. To replace phosphates, other water binders can be utilized, such as mustard, corn syrup solids, sugars, starches, carrageenan, soy protein, fibers, etc. Unfortunately, some of these ingredients are not completely water soluble. Generally, phosphates are used in whole muscle meat products. Sodium carbonate/bicarbonate may be used as partial phosphate replacers in whole muscle meat products; but its use is limited before flavor issues arise. Some of these water binders can also negatively impact texture or mask other flavors.

Artificial Flavors

Artificial flavors are often associated with processed or “unnatural” products in the mind of the consumer, although they provide real benefit in development for meat protein. Artificial flavors typically survive the cooking process much better than natural flavors and generally have a significantly lower cost-in-use compared to natural flavors. Many artificial flavors cannot easily be replaced with a natural version. Natural flavors tend to be higher in cost, and typically require increased usage partially due to the high level of natural flavor that flashes off when the meat is cooked, but may have other side effects such as cookout purge, texture changes, and savory flavor masking.

Corn Syrup Solids

Another ingredient that consumers may look to avoid due to a negative health perception is corn syrup solids. This ingredient is very good at helping to maintain moisture in sausage and provides only a mild sweetness. Typically, it’s just enough sweetness to counteract the salt added to the meat. Alternate water binders (where allowed per USDA regulation) can also be substituted for corn syrup solids, but may have other side effects such as purge, texture and savory flavor masking.

Sodium Nitrite

This is a curing agent that keeps meat pink after cooking. To take sodium nitrite off labels, “natural” curing agents, such as celery juice concentrates, were developed as an alternative. Consumer perception is that this is a healthier option, and products labeled as uncured, or naturally cured are now more common. The truth that consumers may not know is there is really only one reaction that will cure meat, and it starts with sodium nitrite. These natural curing agents are designed to provide high levels of nitrite created by “natural” methods, including natural microbial fermentation. The difference is sodium nitrite does not appear on the label when natural curing agents are used. These natural curing agents also typically require extended curing time as well, compared to traditional curing. This, however, is an area of meat protein development that is rapidly changing. We are keeping a close eye on any new development that may affect our use of certain curing agents.


There is a misconception that antibiotics can be found in commercial meat protein available at retail and foodservice. In reality, livestock are taken off antibiotics well in advance of harvest to avoid this very issue, but this may not be widely known. The USDA has allowed some meat, such as chicken, to contain statements such as “No antibiotics” on their labels, but beef and pork products do not carry these designates. By federal law, all meat and poultry products sold in the U.S. are free of antibiotic residues.

Label Claims Need Not Apply

Across food and beverage, there is trending growth in organic, Non-GMO Project Verified (NGMPV) products. However, these callouts on labels are not always common in the meat industry.  

Organic spices are often difficult to source and cost significantly more in comparison to traditional spices. These organic spices can also be lower in spice flavor on a 1:1 comparison basis. They are typically steam treated to reduce contamination, but this is not as effective as the irradiation or ethylene oxide treatments which are normally used. These spices often contain a higher micro load.  As a result, the use of organic spices can also reduce shelf life and negatively impact spice and seasoning color much like organic paprika when compared to conventional – the color has a tendency to fade rapidly.

Similar to organic, NGMPV callouts tend to add cost and do not necessarily improve flavor. There is also a limited variety of raw material options available that meet the stringent criteria. However, ingredients like NGM starches and flavors spray dried using NGM ingredients are available. Some common ingredients like salt, onion powder and garlic powder are already NGM. Finding NGMPV fed meat or organic sources may be very difficult to procure in production quantities and at reasonable costs.

Because of the challenges that can accompany organic and NGMPV claims, they are not commonly seen in meat protein development. However, some label claims like gluten-free and grass-fed are seen quite often. Gluten-free can be accommodated by making formula revisions like replacing a wheat hydrolyzed vegetable protein with a corn HVP or using a wheat-free soy sauce to replace regular soy sauce powder. A minor compromise or flavor shift is often unavoidable. Grass-fed meats tend to have a yellowing of the fat, which also takes on a grassy or hay-like flavor that can be perceived as unpleasant.  

The USDA Standards of Identity can be helpful in marketing some products by improving label appeal. For example, in an Italian sausage rather than simply labeling “spices,” individual spices can be listed separately, i.e., fennel, anise, oregano, red pepper. While this may make a longer label, it can also create the perception of being more authentic, helping to assure the consumer this sausage has the “right stuff” they expect to find in an Italian sausage link.

Knowledge is Power

Having a good regulatory group to review ingredients and final product formulations is paramount when developing with clean label standards. This should include developers with access to a complete up-to-date set of ingredient documents. One must always be watchful for any ingredients containing allergens. Knowledge of USDA regulations is also important to assure that replacement ingredients are allowed and used at the proper levels. The USDA has a wide variety of information online that can also be helpful during the product development process.

In addition, access to a library of alternative raw materials is required to test and validate replacement options for undesirable ingredients. These might include natural flavors, natural antioxidants, flavor technologies and spice extractives. In our development, it helps that Wixon is vertically integrated, which provides access and support across flavor modification technology, seasonings, flavors and spices.

Finally, access to meat blocks that match the finished product can be very important. Even minor changes in fat levels can have significant impact on how various ingredients interact and impact the flavor of the finished product. At Wixon we prefer to formulate prototypes of the finished product in our meat pilot plant to ensure we are testing the flavor system in the finished application that emulates the processor’s finished product.

The Future of Clean Labels

It seems the shift to plant-based meat alternatives is a trend that is here to stay. At the present time, and contrary to popular belief, this product line can step outside the bounds of the clean label trend discussed in this article. Oftentimes plant-based meat products contain ingredient statements that are a short paragraph in length and filled with many of the clean label “no-no” ingredients. Nutritionally they tend to be slightly lower in calories although equal or higher in saturated fat and sodium. In addition to higher cost, they also tend to contain significant amounts of highly processed ingredients and may include soy, wheat and other allergens that would not be found in the animal protein meat equivalent items. An incentive for these products is their sustainability factor. Plant-based alternatives use significantly less water and land, plus have the benefit of much lower greenhouse gas emissions. From a flavor standpoint, while not being an exact match to real meat, the products currently in the marketplace continue to make strides producing acceptable flavor and texture, so many consumers see them as a viable alternative.

There are also other technologies on the horizon for meat protein. Cell-based meat is a new technology using muscle tissue cells cultured to produce meat in a laboratory setting. To date, it has shown promising results although cost seems to be one of the issues holding it back from mass production. If more cost-effective means are developed, this could be a game changer.

Finally, transparency is the one consumer trend that will have an impact on the future of meat protein, but it is not without difficulties. Due to the nature of commodity handling and co-mingling of meat from different farms, transparency can be difficult to achieve on a large scale. What remains most feasible on the label is illustrating the country of origin where the livestock was produced.

Wixon has built a tradition of excellence in meat protein with over a century of formulation expertise and flavor development. Our protein group is consistently monitoring the market for trending label claims and flavors. Wixon customers have exclusive access to our protein group’s development expertise and proprietary list of retailer “no-no” lists. Contact your Account Manager to learn more or contact us to get started on your next protein innovation.