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Trend analyses over the last decades indicate that the consumption of meat products in most EU countries is stagnating and that 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.


Production of Healthy Meat Products

Using the new technologies developed, different types of meat products with added phytochemicals, natural pigments and different nitrite levels will be produced.

These products will be used in the human dietary intervention study as well as in consumer studies and they will be regarded eligible for industrial scale testing if they have proved promising in terms of 1) colour formation, 2) absence of foreign or unacceptable plant off notes, and 3) stability of the added phytochemicals after the process. Those phytochemicals and natural pigments that will meet these requirements in combination with the lowest nitrite amount will make up the ingredient formulations for the scale up study. This will result in 3 treatments to be tested for each meat item in this research, including:

  1. Standard or reference product where plain nitrite (usual or regulatory amount) is added. This treatment to be regarded as ‘control’;

  2. The same product, added with the specified phytochemical(s). This treatment to evaluate the ability of the phytochemicals to exert gut protection as far as the ‘full nitrite’ technology is applied;

  3. The same product, added with the specified phytochemical(s), natural pigments (if relevant) and with either restricted or zero nitrite. This treatment to evaluate the combined effects of phytochemicals and nitrite reduction (or elimination).

The reason for addressing the ‘full nitrite’ formulation (second treatment) is that, if biologically effective, it would prevent the unwanted side effects often reported in nitrite-free or even in nitrite-restricted meats.

Meat products to be tested in the project:
Cooked ham - Cooked sausage - Dry cured ham (de-boned portion) - Dry sausage, north style –
Dry sausage, south style


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 the Flow Diagram.

Cluster 1: This cluster includes all activities related to “Meat Science” and the development of new technologies, as well as the application of these new technologies by the participating SMEs and the production of meat products to be used for evaluation in cluster 2. 

Cluster 2: The second cluster is focussed on the Health Benefit Assessment of the phytochemicals and extracts to be used in meat processing as well as the phytochemical enriched meat products after human consumption. Cluster 2 will provide input on selection, suitability and affectivity of phytochemicals and natural extracts to be used in the meat technology cluster. Cluster 1 will produce and deliver a range of new meat products for the health impact assessment in the human study in cluster 2. Typical health messages derived from the human study in cluster 2 will be evaluated in the consumer research in cluster 3.

Cluster 3: This cluster combines the Consumer Sciences, Training and Dissemination activities of the SME-AGs, focussing both on the transfer of knowledge within the project, particularly with regard to the implementation of new meat processing technology from SSICA to the partner SMEs in the project, and dissemination of the final outcome the project to the SME-AG members and the general public. As a business case, a series of demonstration activities are planned to evaluate the applicability of the new technologies in industrial settings and to establish sensory quality, microbiological safety and consumer perception of the products produced by the SMEs.

Figure 1: Project Flow Diagram