Phosphates: highly functional, hard to replace

Phosphates: highly functional, hard to replace

24 June 2015

Phosphates are used in a variety of meat and poultry products for a number of reasons, e.g. processing aids and functional ingredients

By Elizabeth Fuhrman, contributing writer, The National Provisioner

Portions of this article not affecting the content or tone of the piece have been edited out for space. View the article in its entirety


The most common categories of products that use phosphates are cooked sausages, hams and other whole-muscle products where moisture retention is important. Phosphates are used in these types of products to increase the meat system pH to improve water-holding capacity, say Jeff Sindelar, associate professor in the department of animal science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. [...]


Roger Clemens, adjunct professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Southern California, L.A, says phosphates serve three basic functions when it comes to food systems: buffering pH, acting as emulsifiers and stabilising. “It’s important to look at those three functions”, he says. “The bottom line is, all of those, they help to stabilise a product whatever the finished product might be.” [...]


“The use of phosphates has also evolved over the years. For example, fresh meat and poultry products are growing leaner than they were several decades ago because of changes in how animals are being produced”, says Kantha Shelke, food scientist and principal of Corvus Blue LLC, Chicago. “While the lower levels of fat may be desirable for the nutritional profile, flavour and texture suffer because fat contributes flavour and moistness and also some room for error if overcooked, as leaner meats are easily overcooked”, she explains. “Phosphates, hence, are being used to help replace flavour and moisture and to help leaner cuts with temperature abuse”, she says. “In addition, phosphates help with manufacturing economics by opening up muscle structure and increasing sites for moisture binding”, Shelke says.


Versatile ingredient – difficult to replace

The usage level for phosphates – sodium and/or potassium – in finished meat and poultry products is limited to 0.5%; however, phosphates are rarely used at a maximum level. The use of phosphates is somewhat stable, Sindelar says. Phosphates remain popular because of how they work and the effects they have. [...]


While phosphates have been used for a number of decades, their use took a dip with the growth of clean-label processing, particularly because phosphates are not allowed in products labelled natural. Many organisations, companies and universities are looking for alternatives for the use of phosphates, and typically those types of ingredients would be coming from plant sources, Clemens says. Phosphates come from the ground, and they can be synthesised in a test tube on a larger scale, he says. “The bottom issue is to find alternatives that, in fact, function as emulsifiers and buffers and that’s very difficult, frankly”, Clemens says. “You need to understand a lot of chemistry both as emulsifiers and buffering solutions so that you maintain optimal pH and minimise antimicrobial growth … It’s trying to keep clean label, so that its functionality is simple, but right now the chemistry is not so simple”.


Sindelar thinks more processors are starting to use phosphates again just because of the sheer benefits of using them and the challenges associated with trying to replace them, whatever it be matching performance or cost. “Phosphates have kind of made it back onto some of those ingredient labels that perhaps you would consider to be more clean-label probably because they are ingredients that are one of those ‘tweener’ ingredients from a consumer acceptability standpoint”, Sindelar says. Consumers may know what they are, but they see them on a lot of other food product labels so that they are not completely obscure to them. [...]


Highly useable

The main challenges of using phosphates aren’t difficult to overcome or prevent. One of the biggest challenges has just been incorporating them as an ingredient. Phosphates typically have a lower solubility compared to a salt or sugar, so it’s harder to get them into a solution, Sindelar explains. Phosphate manufacturers have addressed that by making blends of phosphates, because different types of phosphates have different solubilities, he says. For example, if a processor uses straight sodium tripolyphosphates it is a little more difficult to dissolve into water versus a mixed phosphate which might include sodium hexametaphosphate.


Phosphates also can run into issues in terms of their functionality if they are not handled correctly after they are added to a meat product, Sindelar says.


For example, long holding times after phosphates are added to a product can cause problems in which a processor actually can lose the phosphate functionality. A great example is poultry, Sindelar says. “If you add a brine that includes phosphates and you hold that poultry before it’s cooked for e.g. more than 12-24 hours, you can actually lose a significant amount of the functionality of those phosphates,” he explains. The key is making sure to use the correct phosphate.


“There are several phosphates that are approved and several ones that are used in different blends, Sindelar says. “You need to make sure you are using the right one for the right product, whether you are trying to focus on protein extraction or cured meat colour or water-holding capacity or improved slicing yield, and making sure you are incorporating the phos- phate effectively into a product or into a brine so you have the maximum use for it, and that you are making sure that you are getting the most function from the phosphate for the product to which it is added”.



Fuhrman, Elizabeth. (2015, January 21). 

“PHOSPHATES: highly functional, hard to replace”. The National Provisioner.