As consumers wish to engage in healthier eating without sacrificing the tastes and textures they are used to, food scientists like ourselves are looking for alternative ingredients and processing methods to create healthier familiar foods.
Sodium has recently become subject to much negative attention due to its association with hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and thus reducing sodium content has become a goal in several processed foods. Reducing sodium content in fast, frozen and snack foods is a relatively simple task. Reducing sodium in processed meats is not as simple.
While salt contributes to flavour, it most importantly contributes to arguably the most important characteristic of processed meats: texture. Meat gelation involves the unwinding of salt-soluble meat proteins and their subsequent aggregation. Salt helps to increase protein solubility. When salt is reduced in processed meats, the elasticity of the meat decreases as well.
High pressure processing is a relatively new technique in the food industry. It is able to inactivate microorganisms and therefore increase shelf life of several different types of foods. In processed meats, it is able to increase water binding and protein-protein interactions, two characteristics important for creating a desirable protein gel.
While high pressure processing can aid in gel formation, it does not suffice on its own. Our study looks at beta-glucan as a partial salt replacement in high-pressure processed chicken. Beta-glucan is a dietary fibre (polysaccharide) naturally derived from several foods; in this case, oats. Fibre has many pronounced health benefits and the FDA recommended daily intake is 3 g. Protein/polysaccharide complexes can increase protein solubility; a necessary step in the formation of a desirable meat gel.
Our studies published in Innovative Food Science and Emerging Technologies and Food Chemistry showed that a chicken meat gel with 1% NaCl and 0.3% beta-glucan has comparable hardness to a gel with 2.5% NaCl when processed at 40 C and 400/600 MPa. This is promising evidence suggesting that beta-glucan can be used as a partial salt replacement in processed meats while maintaining the mouthfeel of full-salt products.