Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS


PHYTOME Report Summary

Project ID: 315683
Funded under: FP7-SME
Country: Netherlands


Executive Summary:
The PHYTOME project aims to develop innovative meat products in which the food additive nitrite has been replaced by natural compounds originating from fruits and vegetables. These biologically active compounds, also referred to as phytochemicals, are known to contribute to improved gut health and are added to the meat as natural extracts. EU legislation strikes a balance between the risk of the formation of carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds (NOC) due to the presence of nitrite and the protective effects of nitrite against the presence of pathogenic bacteria.
In 6 different types of meat products, carefully selected combinations of natural antioxidants and other biologically active compounds occurring in vegetables, herbs and fruits have been added during meat processing. Some of these compounds possess an antimicrobial activity allowing them to replace nitrite, whereas others possess a natural red colour that may contribute to the desired appearance of the products. Also, some of these compounds are known to protect colonic cells against damaging effects of cancer causing compounds. The PHYTOME project has developed new technologies to introduce the natural extracts during processing into 6 different types of meat products. A wide range of natural extracts rich in bioactive molecules was found suitable for meat product fortification. In vitro evaluation of radical scavenging capacity showed that rather large differences in products from different suppliers may occur. Reduction or even elimination of nitrite was addressed according to meat categories, and the lowest nitrite addition in cooked meats was 25 mg/kg. In dry-cured meats, elimination of nitrite was found affordable hence recommended for further evaluation at the industrial scale manufacturing stage. The overall amount of phytochemicals was considerably higher in minced meats (2 g/kg of total polyphenols), as compared to whole cuts (cooked and dried hams). In dried hams, incorporation was enhanced using brine vacuum impregnation in the salting stage with positive results (around 1.5 g/kg). Nitrite could be eliminated in dried hams and in dry sausages made according to Southern European style. In the remaining meat items, the level was reduced to a minimum level of 25 mg/kg (cooked ham, cooked sausages and northern style dry sausages) or 75 mg/kg (dried hams, brine injection).
The health promoting effects of these products have been evaluated in a human dietary intervention study with healthy volunteers. Participants consumed during consecutive periods of 2 weeks, maximally 300 grams of conventionally processed meat products, white meat (as reference), and processed meat products with added natural extracts. Faecal excretion of NOC was significantly increased after consumption of processed meat as compared to white meat consumption, but this increase was effectively reduced by adding natural extracts to the meat products. Faecal genotoxicity measurements demonstrated that consumption of meat products increases the induction of DNA strand breaks in colonic cells as compared to white meat. However, DNA strand breaks were not higher when the PHYTOME meat products were consumed. Also DNA-adduct levels were higher after consumption of conventional products as compared to white meat, but not after consuming the PHYTOME meat products. Both the results on faecal genotoxicity and DNA-adducts suggest a phytochemical-induced preventive effect. Gene expression analysis and DNA methylation profiles established in colonic biopsies provided molecular mechanisms which may mechanistically support a preventive effect of the PHYTOME meat products. Elaborate consumer research has demonstrated that European stakeholders and consumers were generally positive about the idea to replace nitrite in meat products by natural compounds. Consumers indicated that the new meat products should possess equal sensory characteristics and improve healthiness as compared to currently available meat products. Four different consumer segments were identified: “enthusiasts”, “accepters”, “half-hearted” and “uninterested”. As attitude emerged as the main driver for purchase intention, “accepters” and “half-hearted” are identified as the primary target segments of interests for marketing communications. After sensory evaluation, the differences between the conventional and the PHYTOME meat products were found to be acceptable among consumers, and information on health risks was the most interesting information for consumers. The outcome of the PHYTOME project was communicated using various means, including the website

Project Context and Objectives:
With regard to meat consumption, consumers are increasingly influenced by messages in the media that consumption of nitrite preserved meat products contributes to human cancer risk. According to various reports of the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), there is convincing evidence that the consumption of red and particularly processed meat is associated with cancer risk. More recently, the International Agency on Research on Cancer even classified processed meat as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1 carcinogen), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer. Aside from the formation of food preparation-related heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), it has been proposed that endogenously formed N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) are responsible for the link between red meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk. Meat is a source of NOC precursors in the form of amines and amides and haem protein present in red meat is thought to catalyze endogenous nitrosation. As most NOCs have mutagenic and genotoxic properties, which explain their carcinogenic effect in test animals, they may also contribute to CRC development in humans. On the other hand, meat and meat products form a conventional part of the human diet and also contribute to the health of consumers in view of the supply of essential amino acids, iron, zinc, selenium, vitamin B6 and B12 and vitamin D. From this perspective, reduction of meat consumption may also have a negative impact on the nutritional status of consumers.

The aim of the PHYTOME project is to develop new meat processing technologies, resulting in innovative products that have no or strongly reduced nitrite levels and that have been shown to contribute to improved gut health. The new meat products are enriched with carefully selected biologically active compounds, so called phytochemicals, present in various natural plant extracts. Specific phytochemicals possess antimicrobial activity that may allow replacement of nitrite without hampering microbiological safety. Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence that these biologically active compounds in the diet, particularly coming from the consumption of fruits and vegetables, reduce the risk of developing colon cancer and improve human health in general. It is generally accepted that specific biologically active compounds in plants and herbs, like vitamin C, tocopheroles, flavonoids, carotenoids, glycol alkaloids and others have a cancer preventive effect. Different types of biologically active compounds may exert their beneficial action via different mechanisms, including effects at the level of formation and kinetics of carcinogenic compounds in the colon, and at the level of cellular protection. More specifically, some polyphenols and ascorbic acid are known inhibitors of the endogenous nitrosation process through which the NOCs are formed that are held responsible for the meat-cancer association. Due to synergistic interactions, combinations of different classes of phytochemicals may be more effective than single compounds.

Therefore, the PHYTOME project aims to deliver optimized food processing techniques to introduce phytochemicals into a range of meat products and that will guarantee microbiological safety and good sensory quality. These new technologies will be transferred to the other end-users to demonstrate their applicability in industrial settings after finalization of the project.

The new meat products have been evaluated in a human dietary intervention study to establish their effect on cancer risk markers in colonic tissues using the newest genomics techniques available.
Elaborate consumer studies have been performed to evaluate the response to the newly developed products. Both consumer acceptance and the willingness to buy this new type of products were tested, and crucial information to support marketing strategies has been obtained.

The European and national SME associations have an excellent network to disseminate the results of the PHYTOME project across the entire EU meat processing sector, stimulating the exploitation of the identified growth market for ‘light and healthy’ meat products.

Project Results:
Consumption of meat products in most EU countries is stagnating and consumers are becoming more critical with regard to health and safety aspects of foods in general, and therefore also regarding meat products. As a consequence, the market segment indicated as ‘light and healthy’ is indeed the main segment in the market for meat products showing considerable growth during the last 10-15 years. Therefore, strengthening the innovation capacity of EU meat processing industry in this particular market segment, by bringing new technology based products on the market, would enable a better exploitation of this specific growth market. Consumer research commissioned by the meat processing industry, has however shown that consumer perception is negatively influenced by messages in the media that unhealthy diets are (among other things) characterised by high meat consumption, and this image of meat products is further influenced by the potential health risks associated with the addition of preservatives such as nitrite, indicated as an E-number on the label.

On the other hand, nitrite is added for good reasons: it is important to control pathogenic microbes, to control oxidation and rancidity and to ensure an appealing pink meat colour, which is also desired by the consumers. Therefore, the problem that the meat processing industry needs to solve is to find innovative technological solutions that allow for the reduction or replacement of nitrite without hampering microbiological food safety and losing sensory quality, particularly taste and colour. The successful introduction of such new meat processing technologies would enable further expansion of the market for healthy meat products.

Additionally, the ongoing discussion on regulation of nitrite in meat products and on the European standard for added nitrite forces the meat industry into a more proactive role in the risk-benefit evaluation of nitrite in meat and the search for better alternatives. These issues affect the whole meat processing industry and therefore the European and national SME associations are eager to find a solution for all their members.

The aim of the PHYTOME project is to develop new meat processing technologies, resulting in innovative meat products that have low or no nitrite and that have been shown to contribute to improved human health. This will be achieved by introducing carefully selected mixtures of biologically active compounds originating from natural plant extracts. The active compounds, referred to as phytochemicals, are found in a wide range of vegetables and fruits and that are known to have beneficial health effects. These compounds also possess antimicrobial activity and may therefore contribute to microbiological safety of the product. Most importantly, they are known to reduce the formation of NOC in the human body when consumed simultaneously with meat products. Phytochemicals are also known to protect the gut from the induction of for instance oxidative genetic damage by other dietary factors and thus adverse health effects.

By developing and evaluating an innovative concept for healthy meat products, the PHYTOME project will deliver optimized food processing techniques to introduce phytochemicals into a range of meat products, and that guarantees their stability during various ways of processing. The new products will be evaluated for microbiological safety and used in a well-controlled human dietary intervention study to establish their impact on human health. As consumers are becoming more aware of healthy alternatives in their diet, it will be evaluated how they respond to the newly developed products. After designing communication strategies, prototype products will be produced along with specific label texts. Both consumer acceptance and the willingness to buy this new type of products will be tested.

To demonstrate the applicability of the concept in the final industrial setting, all outcomes of the project, including the selection of compounds, the new processing technologies, the established human health impact and marketing strategies, will be applied in a business case in which the SME partners will produce a variety of new technology based products for evaluation.

As the newly developed meat processing technologies will have to be transferred from research laboratory conditions to industry, the meat processing SME associations play a key role in the dissemination and implementation of knowledge. The European and national SME associations have an excellent network for disseminating the results of the RTD work across their members, relevant regulatory authorities such as the EFSA, across the entire meat processing sector, and to consumer organizations.

The project consists of 3 separate clusters of activities and 8 different work packages that all have very
strong interactions. The coherence between the various elements is illustrated in figure 1.

Potential Impact:
The results of the PHYTOME project have a clear and demonstrable beneficial impact for the SME members of the SME-AGs participating in the consortium. The knowledge obtained regarding natural extracts that can be used in meat processing and the optimized and validated procedures to be applied during the production process can immediately be applied in practice. This has been demonstrated during the last phase of the project, where the participating end-users have adapted the developed technologies for the production of phytochemical enriched products that are being evaluated in house for sensory effects and microbiological safety. Market research has demonstrated that the segment of innovative and light products is growing faster than for traditional products, indicating the potency of further growth. The availability of healthier alternatives to traditional meat products that are increasingly imported from outside of Europe gives the EU SME-AG members a clear competitive advantage.

Although the discussion on standards for nitrite levels in meat products is ongoing for several decades, only little advancements have been made in finding good and safe alternatives. On the other hand, the scientific basis for standard setting for safe nitrite levels is rather weak and does not take carcinogenic risk into consideration. As a consequence, there is a strong and ongoing scientific debate on safety regulation of nitrite (as well as nitrate). The outcome of the PHYTOME project makes a major contribution to the risk-benefit evaluation of nitrite in meat products, as it is unique in its approach to evaluate the effect of processed meat products with different levels of added nitrite. The benefit for the SME members lies in the fact that a better substantiated nitrite standard may end this ongoing discussion on the safety of added nitrite, and that demonstration that the combination of phytochemicals and nitrite levels at or below the standard are safe indeed. In order to guarantee the impact of the project results on EU policy making, dissemination activities towards policy makers at European and National level have been the main focus of WP7.

The PHYTOME project brings new products to the market that has a quantified and validated impact on human exposure and on human health risks. This health impact does not depend on individual decisions to change unhealthy and unbalanced dietary habits, which in practice are difficult to realize, but is achieved by combining different dietary ingredients into a more balanced product. This implies that meat products produced according to the new concept can be part of health promotion campaigns that aim to stimulate more balanced dietary habits. Successful implementation of the new technologies in the European meat processing industry, accompanied by a good marketing and promotion strategy that are also main outcomes of the project, will contribute to the reduction of chronic disease, improved quality of life and an overall healthier population.

List of Websites:
The PHYTOME project required a coordinated dissemination approach in order to stimulate the introduction of new processing technologies in the EU meat processing industry and to speed up the process of finding consumer acceptance. This required an adequate dissemination strategy at three different levels: 1) within the consortium to facilitate the transfer of technological knowledge and knowhow from RTD to end-users; 2) with members of the SME-AG, to disseminate technological innovations widely within the meat processing industry, and 3) with stakeholders and consumers.
The PHYTOME project has act correspondingly, through its active dissemination strategy, according to the EU FP7 Grant Agreement which required project participants to communicate and engage with actors beyond the research community. The dissemination and training work package has been organised as a separate Workpackage as an element of the coordinating activities, and under the guidance the Steering Committee consisting of SME-AG members, and strongly collaborating with the other PHTYOME partners and the international community of stakeholders. The dissemination plan has considered adequate messages about the objectives of the project and its societal and economic impact. The tools that have been used included web-based communication, press releases, brochures, booklets, multimedia material, etc. The 'dissemination material' has been regularly updated to provide the latest version of the project status and objectives.

In the PHYTOME project, the new technologies have been developed and evaluated for the major meat products with the largest market share. Now the concept can be further developed and tailored to other product types. It is intended that the SME-AG’s will continue to stimulate the exploitation of the project results by continuing to demonstrate the economic benefits to their SME members.

The cooperation between the SME-AG at an international level, coming from different member states and including the European Association CLITRAVI, resulted in a concerted and proactive action to improve the quality and consumer perception of meat products in Europe. Being in the position to steer the direction of the research, the SME-AG are now able to ensure that their member SME’s will benefit maximally from the outcome of the project and will be able to serve both national and international markets. As a result of this combined international effort, the meat processing industry will be less vulnerable to changes in consumer demands for healthier products.
The PHYTOME project logo has been used in all dissemination material, distributed during scientific meetings, conferences at national, European and international level.

The multiplicity of scientific, industrial, and regulatory stakeholders to the PHYTOME project constitutes a complex, multi-layered environment for disseminating the project’s results. In this respect, important stakeholders to address were the EU’s regulatory authorities such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and relevant industrial trade organizations, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) and particularly specific ILSI-expert groups were targeted. Furthermore, the reconciling of the communications goals of the consortium and those of the EU also entails addressing a very broad range of recipients. Because of the major interest of the general public concerning food safety there is an equal responsibility to show citizens and non-governmental organizations the outcome of EU funded research.

The outcome of the PHYTOME project has made a significant contribution to the risk-benefit evaluation of nitrite in meat products, as it is unique in its approach to evaluate the effect of processed meat products with different levels of added nitrite. The benefit for the SME members lies in the fact that a better substantiated nitrite standard may end this discussion on the safety of added nitrite, and that the results of the project may demonstrate that the combination of phytochemicals and nitrite levels at or below the standard are safe indeed.

PHYTOME Poster: a project poster highlighs the structure of the PHYTOME project in collaboration with the entire consortium. Together with the rest of the dissemination material, this poster has been made available to partners and others through to PHYTOME project website.

The address of the project website is:

Contact persons for the diXa Project are:

Prof. Dr. Theo de Kok
Maastricht University
Dept. Of Toxicogenomics
P.O. Box 616
6200 MD Maastricht
The Netherlands
Phone: +31-43-3881091

René Reijnders MSc.
Maastricht University
Dept. Of Toxicogenomics
P.O. Box 616
6200 MD Maastricht
The Netherlands
Phone: +31-43-3881098

Related information


René Reijnders MSc., (Senior Project Manager)
Tel.: +31433881098
Record Number: 187860 / Last updated on: 2016-08-12