Annatto may replace nitrites in cured meats, study

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Nitrites, much maligned additives in cured meats, may be replaced by the red-orange-yellow natural colourant annatto, according to new research from Iran.

Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Food Chemistry​, researchers from Tarbiat Modares University report that annatto (Bixa orellana​ L.) powder may partially replace nitrites in sausages without affecting the microbial or sensory profiles of the finished product.

Nitrite salts (also known as sodium nitrite) have traditionally been used to cure cooked meat products and fine paste sausages. Nitrites are added to meat to retard rancidity, stabilise flavour, and establish the characteristic pink colour of cured meat.

Some recent studies have cast a shadow of doubt over the safe use of nitrites in meats.

On the flip side, several recent studies reported that the additives may have some health benefits, with a Swedish study, for example, suggesting that nitrites may protect the stomach from ulcers (J. Petersson , 2008, PhD Thesis: "Nitrate, Nitrite and Nitric Oxide in Gastric Mucosal Defense"​ Uppsala University).

Despite such reports, the processed meat industry does remain under pressure from some quarters to reformulate in order to reduce or remove nitrites from its products. Indeed, many meat products are already labelled as 'no nitrite added', 'without added nitrite' or even 'nitrite free'.

Study details

The Tehran-based researchers formulated sausages with 55 or 70 per cent meat and added annatto as a replacement for 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100 per cent nitrite. A sausage with 0 per cent annatto and 100 per cent nitrite was also formulated to act as the control.

“The objective of this novel study was to assess the partial replacement of nitrite by annatto as a colour additive in sausages under industrial conditions,”​ stated the researchers.

Analysis of the colour, microbial contamination, and flavour and odour of the sausages was then performed after refrigerated storage for 2, 10, 20 and 30 days.

The results showed that the sample formulated with 60 per cent annatto was the best sample for its colour. In addition, this sausage formulation also did not differ significantly from the control (100 per cent nitrite) sausage in terms of flavour and aroma, and microbial contamination, said the researchers.

Annatto confusion

The colour was the source of confusion in 2005 when European authorities issued a recall of some foods containing annatto.

The notice caused confusion among food ingredients suppliers and food manufacturers because annatto/bixin/norbixin are permitted colours under the European directive 94/36/EC on colours for use in foodstuffs.

The source of confusion was that annatto (E160b) is permitted in some foods and not others.

Source: Meat Science​ (Elsevier)Published online ahead of print 8 August 2008, doi: “Partial replacement of nitrite by annatto as a colour additive in sausage”​Authors: S. Zarringhalami, M.A. Sahari, Z. Hamidi-Esfehani

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