Meat had a big role in the evolution of modern humans. Pre-historic climate change meant that our ancestors couldn’t forage in the forests for fruits and seeds. They needed to find new sources of calories, so they began to eat the large herbivores that thrived on the expanding grasslands.
This shift to eating meat was responsible for the growth of the human brain. Eating more calorie-rich meat gave our ancestors the energy to develop our super-sized brains. In fact, the modern human brain is three times the size of early humans and consumes 20% of our body’s total energy.
Eventually, humans began cooking meat. This made it easier to digest and enabled us to absorb even more of the nutrients we needed to fuel our brains.
Fast-forward to today’s world of ever-expanding choices for the consumer. Supermarket shelves are heaving with literally thousands of foods to choose from. Calorie-dense foods are everywhere, including plenty of plant-based options. In fact, simple foods like peanut butter and chickpeas offer more than enough energy to power our modern brains and bodies. So why do we eat so much more meat than our ancestors?
The simple answer is, we really, REALLY like it! Whether it’s the smell of a barbecue, a slow-roasted pork loin, or bacon frying – meat triggers a primal, mouth-watering response in most of us that is irresistible.
Increasing Production to Meet Demand
From all the buzz recently about plant-based foods, you may be surprised to learn that global meat production is continuing to increase. Our appetite for meat seems to be as strong as ever, with global meat production set to increase 14% by 2030.
Industrialised Western nations average more than 220 pounds – which is equivalent to approx. 100 kgs of meat per person per year. Producing meat on that scale would be beyond the capacity of traditional small holding farms alone. Which is where modern meat production and processed meat products have come to the rescue.
As our meat consumption has grown, the challenge for agriculture has been how to keep up with demand for more, and cheaper, meat. Advances in meat processing technology have made it possible to provide an abundance of affordable meat. Modern innovations have brought more automation to the industry, with increasing numbers of robots used on the lines of processing plants.
Sodium and Processed Meat
It’s no secret that processed meat contains high levels of sodium. Whether in an artisan Italian sausage, or a chicken breast, salt is added for many reasons. First, it’s a natural preservative that extends the shelf life of meat. It also plays a key role as a stabiliser in binding ingredients to ensure quality in the final product. And finally, of course, is taste!
The amount of added salt varies from type of meat, and type of product. Let’s look at some of the most popular processed meats and their sodium content.
The global growth in meat production is primarily driven by poultry. Consumers love poultry because it’s generally less expensive than other meat, and is perceived as a lighter, healthier option. Producers like it because it’s very cost-efficient and has a short production cycle. These factors together explain why poultry has stronger outlook than red meat overall, with poultry production set to rise 17% by 2030.
The popularity of chicken is clearly seen in the fast-food market. In the US, three of the top QSRs are chicken restaurants. Each of the top restaurant brands feature chicken on their menus, including the pizza restaurants. Chicken wings, chicken fingers, chicken nuggets, chicken burgers – the versatility of this meat is a big part of its success.
For many years, the most popular dish in the UK was chicken tikka masala. Chicken is found in many other world cuisines, featuring in Korean, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, and Mediterranean dishes.
In the US and UK, sharing a turkey with family is a traditional event. For the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, an estimated 46 million turkeys are eaten each year. In the UK and Ireland the roasted turkey is standard Christmas dinner fare.
In Asia, chicken is a popular meat – as are duck and goose. Although duck and goose meat are a darker colour, they are still technically poultry and considered a “white meat”. Demand is set to drive total global consumption of duck and goose meat to 8 million tonnes by the end of 2025. China is the top producer and consumer of this meat, but it also enjoys significant popularity in many European countries – notably France, which consumed 203,000 tonnes in 2019.
Duck meat is naturally tougher than chicken, with a texture more like red meat. For this reason, it’s tenderised with brines and marinades. These contain very high levels of salt. A raw duck breast can contain 380 mg of sodium.
Both chicken and turkey are regarded as healthier than red meat, which makes them the choice for many health-conscious consumers. Processed turkey, in particular, enjoys a healthy reputation as it has less cholesterol and fewer calories than chicken.
While poultry does have many healthy qualities, there is a hidden danger in the form of added salt and sodium. To improve flavour, texture and shelf life it is common practice to inject raw poultry meat with a salt solution. The added liquid, sometimes including other seasonings, produces a juicier cut of meat, and prolongs shelf life. This standard enhancement can add up to 400 mg sodium per serving.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world.
China currently leads the world in pork production, producing about 55 million metric tonnes of pork each year. The EU is the top pork exporter, with over 3 million metric tonnes of pork shipments in 2020.
As the economies of East Asia have grown, so has their demand for pork. Asia’s middle class wants more meat, and pork is the favourite. Pork consumption in China was more than double that of all EU countries combined in 2020.
Pork has always been popular in North America. From humble favourites like the BLT sandwich to pulled pork and saucy baby back ribs. Bacon alone has inspired a whole universe of bacon-flavoured products, including ice cream, beer and coffee. Elsewhere on the continent pork features in many Mexican and Cuban dishes.
Globally popular pork products like fresh sausages, salamis, hams (restructured, cooked and cured) and bacon are some of the highest for added salt. A pork sausage can for instance have about 1550 mg sodium which is almost 70% of a person’s RDI. And a serving of ham contains, on average, nearly half the RDI of sodium. It is no surprise that pork products have become a prime focus area for sodium reduction with strict salt targets and benchmarks set by the WHO, PHE, EU and FDA etc.
Beef is considered to be the ultimate meat. Its consumption has long been seen as part of an aspirational lifestyle. Prime cuts of beef are a status symbol equated with wealth and success.
In 2020, the world ate 130 billion pounds of beef – which is equivalent to approx. 59 billion kgs. Not unsurprisingly, the most beef was consumed by the United States. China and EU were in 2nd and 3rd place. Interestingly, India, a country where beef is not part of the traditional cuisine, was 5th in world beef consumption.
Because of its higher price, beef consumption is usually an indicator of economic growth. As people accrue more wealth, they naturally reach for the “finer things” in life, including thick cut juicy ribeye steaks.
For most people, the frequently consumed beef-based meals are likely to be a hamburger or beef bolognese. The rise of American burger restaurants has made the burger-and-fries combo the classic fast-food order. It’s estimated that Americans eat 50 billion burgers each year.
In the UK, beef is found in traditional favourites like steak pie, Beef Wellington, and the Cornish Pasty. And of course, the classic Sunday lunch featuring roast beef and gravy.
Beef has faced conflicting views on its healthiness over the years. Red meat was traditionally regarded as healthy to its high protein and iron content. Then things changed with more awareness of cholesterol and “heart-healthy” diets. And just when we were convinced red meat was bad for us, the Paleo trend emerged – putting eggs and red meat back on shopping lists.
Whether it’s part of our regular diet, or an occasional treat, beef is a satisfying and indulgent meat that people will always crave. But what about sodium in beef?
Ground beef typically has around 67 mg of added sodium per 100 g, and the more processed the beef product, the more sodium is added. One supermarket beef burger patty can have up to 20% of the RDI. And the average plain double-patty beef hamburger has 497 milligrams of sodium, approx. 25% of the daily recommendation. Beef meatballs are another example of high sodium levels. Prepared beef meatballs can have as nearly 50% of a person’s sodium RDI, much as 980 mg of salt per 125 g.
A New Challenge: Reducing Sodium in Processed Meats
So, our love affair with meat has continued from the time of cavemen to the age of robots. While technology has conquered the challenges of production, there is now a shift in focus to a new challenge. If we can have as much as we want, can we also have processed meat that is healthier for us?
The answer is YES. By replacing regular PDV salt with SALTWELL® in processed meats can significantly reduce sodium levels while at the same time preserving flavour and functional elements of the product.
As an all-natural and single-grain solution Saltwell has 35% less sodium than regular salt. In fact, some participants in sensory tests say Saltwell improved the flavour of the original meat product.
In dozens of studies and NPD projects, using both sensory and instrumental analysis, Saltwell has been tested against a range of KCI blends, yeast extracts, sea salts, and standard PDV salts. This work has been conducted by leading food producers, technology institutes, focus groups, and universities from around the world.
You can see how Saltwell performs in a range of processed meat applications by VIEWING THE CASE STUDY.