What is known as “processed meat” indicates an “intermediate food product” (IFP) which has undergone processes of texturisation, structural rearrangement, preservation, and packaging through the use of machinery and chemical agents in the meat production industry.
Although the word “processed” implies that industrial restructuring and chemicals are only introduced once the meat is slaughtered and enters the processing plant, the use of chemicals, hormones, industrial tools, and other agents may occur, and often does occur, during and throughout the slaughtering, feeding, rearing, and even conception processes. Just about any meat (beef, lamb, chicken, pork) that is purchased in a package can be considered “processed,” including whole chickens or turkeys or other large cuts of meat. Fast food, such as processed hamburger patties, represent an extreme of meat processing.
While buying meat from a local butcher is safer, it does not preclude the presence of preservatives and contaminants.
Generally speaking, meat is composed of the livestock muscle, which is generally composed of 12-15% mineral salts, 20% proteins of various kinds, 2-4% lipids, 1% glycogen, some iron, with the remainder being water. During processing, however, several things will be added:
- Additional water may be added to increase the weight and fullness of the meat product for general appeal; some kinds of bacon are as much as 50% water after processing.
- Sodium nitrate or nitrite will definitely be added to processed meats in America as a preservative. This has proven to be carcinogenic and is against the law in Europe as a food additive. Meat contains a low quantity of sodium nitrate which, meat producers say, is not a health risk.
- Salt and sodium polyphosphates usually added to produce more weight and increase juiciness. They generally have no negative health effects when not consumed too often, but are often added in high quantities to improve appearance, weight, juiciness, shape, and fat content.
- Offal (discarded meat product) is added to all meats for “restructuring.” The act of slaughtering, processing, and packaging unwinds the meat at the molecular level, and large amounts of tongue, esophagus, intestine, or other offal are mixed in to return the meat to its former integrity.
- Chemical binders could mean gluten or polyphosphates which strengthen the low energy molecular bonds and have the same effect as adding meat byproduct like offal.
- Chemical fixers (including nitrite) are added as a preservative and color fixer. After processing, meat often turns gray and looks unappealing, so chemical fixers are added with the dual benefit of both helping to preserve the meat and “fixing” the color to a deeper blood red.
- Other animal meat, such as dog, horse, or other kinds normally not consumed, may be added to improve general appearance and juiciness. This is illegal but often occurs regardless of food regulation law.
- Lipid oxidation products occur as a natural consequence of the process of “processing.” This refers to a chemical reaction in the lipids which produce compounds found to be mutagenic or carcinogenic. Just how carcinogenic, or by what process cancer may occur due to oxidized lipids, is not yet fully understood by scientists.
- Sodium or potassium lactate is added to prevent spoilage. Too much of this product results in a “chemical” flavor in the meat.