Final Report Summary - PROCURED (PROCURED: Optimization Of The Salting Process For The Production Of Healthier And Higher Quality Dry-Cured Meat Products With Reduced And More Standardized Salt Content)
Salt is used in the production of a wide variety of cured and dry-cured meat products in Europe, which are not only important because of their high economic value, but also due to historical, cultural, and gastronomical reasons. Among them, the different varieties of dry-cured ham produced in many European countries are the most notable and economically relevant examples.
Despite the overall nutritional and gastronomical properties of dry-cured meat products, and their relevant historical and cultural value in Europe, their high sodium content has become a major concern in general terms of public health, both for meat processors and for consumers. The increasing awareness of the final consumers in relation to the negative effects of a salt rich diet has significantly increased the market demand for reduced sodium food products. In this scenario, meat processors must face severe difficulties in meeting these new expectations, due to the technological challenges associated to the reduction of the salt content in dry-cured meat products.
Beyond the market demand for products with reduced sodium content, meat processors are concerned about the lack of repeatability of the dry-cured meat production process, which severely affects to the quality of the final product. Moreover, they are increasingly interested in developing new product segments with reduced salt content, because of their significant market potential.
In the ProCured project, we developed a salting control platform which allows evaluating the main ham parameters that condition the salt uptake, including the weight, fat content and distribution, lean exposed area, meat colour, and morphology. Based on these parameters, the control platform determines the optimum salting parameters to be used in each ham, according to its properties. Moreover, the ProCured system allows also monitoring the salt uptake after the salting stage, and thus, ensuring that the salting parameters used are adequate.
It is expected that the ProCured technology will help dry-cured meat producers to improve the homogeneity of their products by ensuring a more standardized salt content in the final product. Moreover, ProCured provides also an effective tool to produce segments of products with reduced salt content.
Project Context and Objectives:
Salt (sodium chloride) is after sugar, the most frequently used ingredient in the food industry. In particular, salt is extensively used across Europe in the production of a wide variety of dry-cured meat products obtained from different cuts, which are not only important because of their market and economic value, but also due to historical, cultural, and gastronomical reasons.
Among dry-cured meat products, the different varieties of dry-cured ham produced in many European countries are the most notable and economically relevant examples. Besides, many other traditional dry-cured meat cuts are obtained from shoulders (speck), loins (fiocco, Iberian loin), and bellies (dry-cured bacon).
The production of dry-cured meat essentially involves two steps. First, meat is salted for a certain period of time to allow the diffusion of salt to the meat. This first stage is performed in cooled rooms to ensure meat preservation. By the end of the salting stage, meat has acquired the amount of salt that will be present in the final product. The next step in the process involves washing meat to prevent the further uptake of salt, and transferring meat to curing chambers, where the temperature is gradually increased to promote the dehydration of meat, and the obtaining of the final dry-cured meat product. During this second stage, several complex microbiological processes occur, which are responsible for the unique texture and sensory properties of the product.
In spite of the overall nutritional and gastronomical properties of dry-cured meat products, their high sodium content has become a major concern in terms of public health, because of the well-established relations between the salt intake, hypertension and associated vascular diseases. Unfortunately, the average amount of salt in the diet of European citizens is about twice than recommended by the World Health Organization, and it has been established that about 30% of the salt ingested arises from processed meat products. Among them, dry-cured meat has the highest sodium content (the amount of salt in 100g of lean dry-cured ham is 6g, which is about the recommended total daily intake).
Over the last years, the production of dry-cured meat products with reduced sodium content has increasingly attracted the interest of meat processors. However, there are a number of factors that hinder the reduction of the salt content in cured meat. First of all, the use of salt is inherently linked to the curing production method, and the use of salt is necessary not only to obtain a tasteful product, but also to ensure its correct conservation, and its microbiological safety. Unfortunately, the complete elimination of sodium chloride in dry-cured products is nowadays unfeasible, and attempts to replace it with other sodium-free salts have been up to now unfruitful.
In spite of the fact that it is currently impossible to produce sodium-free dry-cured meat products, there is indeed the possibility to reduce their salt content substantially. In average, the amount of salt used to produce dry-cured meat is significantly higher than the amount actually needed to preserve meat, and to achieve the desired sensory characteristics. However, increasing the average amount of salt in the product is necessary due to the fact that the final salt content in meat varies from piece to piece. Regardless the accuracy of the procedures to salt meat, meat processors are currently unable to salt meat in a reproducible way, which result in meat pieces with excessive salt, and meat pieces with average salt content below the average. Due to this variability, meat processors must adjust their salting process by increasing the average salt content. This ensures that all meat pieces have a minimum amount of salt and grants their microbiological safety and preservation, at the expense of jeopardizing their nutritional properties of a product that on average, will contain a high sodium content.
In practice, the reduction of the salt content in dry-cured meat products is thus hindered by the lack of repeatability of current industrial salting processes. Over the past years, the meat processing industry has introduced significant improvements in their production process. These improvements have allowed reducing production costs, and increasing the production yield, and have also contributed to improve the quality of their product. For example, nowadays the curing process is carried out in climatic chambers, in which the temperature and humidity of the rooms is tightly controlled. Likewise, meat processors have also tried to adapt their salting process to reduce the variability in the final uptake. In particular, the salting conditions for each meat piece are usually varied as a function of its weight, and important efforts are done to ensure that the salting process is performed at cooling rooms, in which the temperature of meat is accurately controlled.
In spite of these technological advances, meat processors do not still have the required tools to adequately control the salting process. In last term, the amount of salt uptaken by a meat piece is not only dependent on the salting parameters, but it is also strongly dependent on meat properties. For example, under equivalent salting conditions, leaner hams will uptake more salt than fattier hams, because the presence of fat hinders the penetration of salt in the product. Moreover, there are other meat characteristics that will ultimately condition the amount of salt uptaken, including the presence of intramuscular fat, meat pH, the morphology of the piece, or even the way in which the piece has been trimmed. Together, the variability of these parameters result in a wide dispersion of the salt uptaken during the dry-cured meat production process.
The desirable reduction of the average amount of salt in dry-cured meat products is thus closely related to the need for developing new technologies that could be used to evaluate the properties of each meat cut, and to define the best salting conditions for each meat piece.
The project ProCured has addressed the need for developing technologies and methodologies that could be used by meat processors to reduce the amount of salt in their dry-cured meat products. The overall goal of the project was to develop a salting control platform to enable a more accurate control of the salting stage in the production of dry-cured meat, which will ultimately result in a more homogeneous and standardized salt content in the final product, and which will allow reducing the average amount of salt in dry-cured meat by 25%, without jeopardizing their microbiological safety. These new product segments will address the growing consumer demand for products with reduced salt and/or highest quality standards.
The proposed ProCured technology is an integral solution to optimize the salting stage, and consists of three essential elements. The main element of ProCured technology is an automatic meat inspection system, which will allow to analyze key properties of each meat piece, including its weight, composition (lean/fat content), morphology, and amount of lean exposed area. The information provided by this module will be integrated in a control platform, which will use advanced mathematical techniques based on Artificial Intelligence, to define the optimum salting parameters for each meat piece. The last element in the ProCured system corresponds to a meat inspection system, which will allow monitoring the salt content in the final product. The information provided by this module will allow optimizing the salting process, and will allow producers ensuring that the salting process is being performed under optimized conditions.
Improving the control of the salt uptake process
The reduction of the salt content in dry-cured meat is strongly linked to the ability to more tightly control the salting process. To achieve this, it is necessary to develop tools and methodologies that allow evaluating those meat properties that condition the salt uptake process. Among them, one should particularly highlight the relevance of the weight, the fat/lean composition, the amount of intramuscular fat, the water holding capacity of meat, and the morphology of the meat piece.
Accordingly, the first part of the project has been focused on the development of technologies that can be integrated in actual production lines to characterize fresh meat. The information provided by this system shall be used to optimize the salting process in the production of dry-cured meat products, and to more accurately control the amount of salt uptaken by each piece. The meat inspection system developed in the project consists of two modules. A first module is based on a magnetic induction scanner, which integrates a dynamic weighting system, and which can evaluate the weight and the fat/lean content of the meat piece. Moreover, a second module based on an artificial vision system was developed to assess other relevant meat parameters, including meat colour, lean exposed area, amount of intramuscular fat, and morphology.
The meat inspection system developed in the project allowed designing different sets of experiments aimed at modelling the salt uptake process. The overall goal of these experiments was to establish mathematical models that could be used to predict the salt uptake in dry-cured ham production, as a function of ham properties. This methodology was applied to different case scenarios, including the “Serrano ham”, “Iberian ham” and “Parma ham”. For each case, it was successfully proved that the salt uptake could be modelled by taking into account the meat parameters extracted by the meat inspection system, and the salting conditions used in the process. Based on this information, a control software was developed, which could accurately predict the salting conditions to be used to reach a certain salt target, by taking into account the characteristics of each ham.
Complementarily to the fresh meat inspection system, in the project it was also developed a magnetic induction scanner that could be used to determine the salt content in meat, after the salting stage. This system shall be used to monitor the salt content piece by piece, thus allowing to detect any eventual deviation in the salting process.
The last phase of the project was aimed at validating the technology under an industrial environment. This validation phase of the ProCured technology was performed in collaboration with two dry-cured ham producers at Spain (Jamones Centellas), and Italy (Fratelli Galloni). The implementation of the ProCured control system was probed to be able to substantially reduce the salt dispersion after the salting stage. In this way, the ProCured control system was found to be effective in improving the homogeneity of the salt content in dry-cured ham production.
Producing dry-cured hams with reduced salt content
The improvement in the salting process control provided by the ProCured platform allows reducing the salt uptake, without compromising the microbiological safety of the product. Therefore, as far as the reproducibility of the salting process can be ensured, it is possible to obtain dry-cured ham products with reduced salt content – 25% less than the average salt content of the standard product.
The reduction in the salt content can be achieved by different means. In the case of the Spanish style dry-cured ham production, the most convenient way to achieve this is by decreasing the salting time, i.e the period in which fresh hams remain in contact with salt. In the case of the Italian-style production process, the reduction in the salt content of the final product is more easily achievable by reducing the percentage of salt added to the ham. In both cases, the reduction of the salt content must need compensated by increasing the time in which the hams are stored at cooled rooms, before curing (resting time). This procedure is necessary since the reduction of the salt content is associated with a lower dehydration rate, and therefore, it is necessary to keep hams at low temperature in order to ensure their microbiological safety.
As part of the activities included in the project, we produced sets of Serrano and Parma hams with reduced salt content. The analytical results of the samples obtained have shown that the processing conditions selected were adequate to grant a 25% reduction in the final salt content of the hams.
Besides the analytical study, a sensory evaluation was performed to compare the characteristics of hams with reduced salt content, compared to those with regular salt content. The results obtained from the panel tests indicate that the sensory attribute of the product are not degraded as a consequence of the reduction in the salt content. In particular, Serrano ham produced with reduced salt content proved to have similar bitterness, hardness, pastiness and metallic taste, to those scored by serrano ham produced with standard salt content. Likewise, the sensory attributes of Parma ham with reduced salt content were also found to be similar to those of standard Parma hams. Moreover, in this case the overall degree of acceptability for the product with reduced salt content was higher. In addition, it should be also mentioned that the overall perception of consumer regarding the product with reduced salt content was further increased when it was informed about its healthier nutritional properties.
Impact on Meat Processing sector
ProCured technology will benefit hundreds of companies within the meat processing industry. The technology developed in the project provides a means to more accurately control the salting process, and to produce dry-cured meat products with reduced salt content.
The expected economic benefits for end-user meat processors are manifold. First, ProCured technology will allow them to improve the reproducibility of their production processes. This will result in products with more consistent quality, which is a major issue from the perspective of consumers. Moreover, ProCured technology will strongly reduce the incidence of meat pieces with an excessive salt content, thus improving the product quality, avoiding consumer complaints, and increasing brand prestige and reputation.
The accurate control of the salting process will also have an incidence on other steps of the production process. In particular, a more homogeneous salt uptake, and an accurate sorting of raw meat at the reception point will also allow improving the homogeneity of the curing process. Beyond the direct impact that such improvement may have on the quality of the final product, it should be highlighted that it will also allow meat processors to achieve a reduction in the dispersion of weight losses on the overall production. Moreover, this will represent and substantial economic benefits to meat processors, associated to the direct increase of the process yield.
A last remarkable benefit for meat processors deals with the fact that the ProCured technology will allow them to produce new product segments with reduced salt content. In this sense, the ProCured technology brings two key technological improvements. First, by improving the control of the salting process, meat processors will be able to adapt the salting conditions to reduce the salt content, without compromising the microbiological quality of the product. And second, ProCured technology will provide them a tool for continuously monitoring the salt content in their products, piece by piece. This will allow producers to ensure an appropriate level of salt in all their production, and at the same time, will provide them also an objective means to assess the target reduction of 25% in order to be able to label their products as products with “Reduced salt content” , in compliance with the EC directives.
Impact on society
The reduction of the average sodium consumption is a major European objective towards improving public health, due to its well established relation with the increased risk for cardiovascular accidents and chronic diseases. Processed meat and in particular dry-cured meat products, are the most important source of salt intake in European diet, with variable salt contents depending on product type (ex: 5%-8% in ham, or 3%-4% in bacon). The sodium content in just 100 g of dry cured meat is above the daily salt intake recommended by the WHO.
The consumption of dry-cured products in most European countries is significant, like in the case of Spain (3.8 kg/year per habitant). Therefore, the reduction of salt content in dry-cured product will notably contribute towards improving the health and quality of life of European citizens.
ProCured will contribute to the creation of employment within the European Union, by enabling the creation of new production technologies that will enable the development of higher quality and higher value products.
Impact on consortium partners
SMEs in the consortium will benefit from the exploitation of ProCured technology, which will be led by company Lenz Instruments, S.L (LENZ). LENZ intends to coordinate the final product development phase, and be responsible for the future commercial manufacture of the ProCured platform. Moreover, three companies in the consortium will benefit from the distribution, integration and maintenance of ProCured technology. These companies – Roser Construcciones Metálicas S.A Strasser GmbH, and Stevia Kft, intend jointly to distribute the final ProCured commercial solution among the European and international meat processing sector.
Finally, end-user companies in the project – Jamones Centellas, S.A and Fratelli Galloni, Srl, will obtain a direct benefit from the project, by having the possibility to be the first companies to integrate the ProCured technology into their production processes.
Impact on standards and policies
In recent years, and following the guidelines provided by the WHO, several European countries have promoted policies aiming at reducing the average sodium content in food, including UK, Spain and Finland, among others. For example, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published an exhaustive list of target values for reducing the salt content in processed meat, and establishes for products like bacon or cured ham, salt reduction objectives of 25%.
In line with these objectives, in 2008, the EU established a common framework for enabling the coordination of such actions at a European level. The present project will contribute towards achieving the objectives of European policies aiming at reducing the salt intake of European citizens.
On the other hand, through the adoption of new modern process control methodologies, producers will have the possibility to obtain higher quality and more homogeneous products. Therefore, the project is expected to have a large impact on current quality standards of dry cured meat products, which are regulated by the different Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs).
Attached documents : Furthermore, project logo, diagrams or photographs illustrating and promoting the work of the project (including videos, etc...) as well as the list of all beneficiaries with the corresponding contact names can be submitted, provided the consortium ensures that all necessary authorisations have been obtained and that the publication of the information by the Commission does not infringe any rights of third parties (e.g. commercial interests, including intellectual property, or privacy and the integrity of the individuals, in particular in accordance with Community legislation regarding the protection of personal data)
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