The PHYTOME project (Phytochemicals to reduce nitrite in meat products) is a major EU co-funded research project that has started the first of December 2012 and aims to develop innovative meat products in which the food additive nitrite has been replaced by natural compounds originating from fruits and vegetables.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.
With regard to the use of nitrites in meat products today's EU legislation strikes a balance between the risk of the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines through the presence of nitrites in meat products and the protective effects of nitrites against the multiplication of the bacteria responsible for life threatening botulism, in line with the EFSA's scientific advice.
There is a growing support to try to further reduce the use of nitrites in meat products whereby it has to be recognised that processed meat consumption is a part of a healthy and balanced diet.
In a number of meat products, carefully selected combinations of natural antioxidants and other biologically active compounds occurring in vegetables, fruits and natural extracts such as coffee and tea, will be 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 agents that may be formed in the large intestine after meat consumption.
The PHYTOME project will develop new technologies to introduce the natural extracts during processing to different types of meat products. These techniques will guarantee good sensory quality of the product as well as microbiological safety. Once these techniques have been developed and optimized at laboratory scale, SME-partners in the project will produce the new type of products on an industrial scale. The health promoting effects of these products will be evaluated in a human dietary intervention study with healthy volunteers. After consumption of a fully controlled diet with either relatively high amounts of the traditional meat products or products produced following the new concept, faeces and colonic material will be collected and investigated for markers of colorectal cancer risk. These investigations will be performed in close collaboration with Research Institutes in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy and Greece, and will make use of the newest genomics techniques that are available.
Elaborate consumer research will establish the response of the general public to the new type of healthier meat products. The perception, acceptance and willingness to buy the new products will be investigated. As the meat processing industry is directly involved in the development of the concept, it is expected that the first products will be introduced to the market soon after the finalization of the project in 2016.