ALL food manufacturers share one top priority: consumer satisfaction. We witness a growing demand for fresh, wholesome and natural food, driven by an expanding awareness among the general public that synthetic food additives are not an optimal choice.
Producing food that meets all the nutritional, hygienic and shelf-life requirements while at the same time is pleasing to the senses on top of being affordable is not a simple task. Food manufacturing involves many hurdles starting from making sure only quality raw ingredients are used, to ensuring that the final product is not subject to microbial spoilage, enzymatic changes, oxidation or going stale, and ascertaining that warehouse conditions are ideal.
Technologies developed in recent years, along with the skilful use of approved additives and processing enhancements, have lessened the burden of confronting many of these issues, but obtaining adequate shelf-life remains a major problem for many manufacturers. The main concern regarding the shelf-life of products, especially those containing significant amounts of fats and oils (meats, deli products, frying oils, snacks, etc.), has to do with oxidative rancidity.
What Is Oxidative Rancidity?
Oxidative rancidity is often responsible for off-flavours, offodours and even loss of colour that may develop in many foods. Beyond compromising the product’s nutritional value, it can potentially cause the food to become rancid and unfit for consumption. Such a scenario can trigger heavy financial consequences for producers and consumers alike.
How does oxidative rancidity come about? In simple terms, when food containing unsaturated fatty acids reacts with oxygen, it sets off a process causing unpleasant irreversible changes which is exacerbated by the presence of heat and light and catalysed by any metals in its packaging. Chemical compounds are formed which impart harsh flavours and odours. Once the oxidative reaction is initiated, it will progress at an ever increasing rate—time is not on our side here. Further, this is not the end of the story.
The very dangerous side effect of the oxidative rancidity process is the formation of what is known as “free radicals”. As the name implies, free radicals are elements or molecules that freely interact with other acceptors, among them our body cells. and this is what should worry us the most.
Our body cells are very delicate, complex and balanced artistic works of nature. When undamaged and working properly, our bodies and minds remain in a healthy state. However, when it is damaged by intruders such as free radicals, their function gradually changes or deteriorates, opening up the door to many diseases. This does not occur all at once but is rather a slow and silent cumulative process.
Synthetics No Longer A Solution
Fifty years ago, the food industry came up with what was thought at the time to be an excellent and cheap way to prevent oxidative rancidity: synthetic antioxidants.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA; e-number 320), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT; e-number 321) and tertbutylhydroquinone (TBHQ; e-number 319) are petroleum-based compounds and most widely used to fill the need for food antioxidants. These can be found in meats and meat products, cereals, deli products, bakery products, snacks, chewing gum and other food items.
Their use in food and other applications, such as in cosmetics, is limited by government regulations and varies from country to country. BHA and BHT can be used in concentrations of up to 0.01 percent in the European Union (EU), while TBHQ is banned there as well as in Japan.
BHT too has been banned for use in food in Japan since 1958, and also in Romania, Sweden, and Australia. However, BHT use in the US is permitted in concentrations of up to 0.02 percent except in baby food where it is not permitted. Some companies have eliminated it from their products, as McDonald’s has since 1986.
While the antioxidant performance of these compounds in food is proven, there is some concern that the oxidative characteristics and/or metabolites of BHA and BHT may contribute to carcinogenicity or tumorigenicity. There are also indications that some people may have difficulty metabolising BHA, BHT and other food additives and that this may lead to changes in health and behaviour such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children.
As such, the alternative of supplementing or substituting synthetic antioxidants with natural ones is a trend that has been emerging. Nature itself makes sure these antioxidants are everywhere around us; all we have to do is look around for them and gain an understanding of their benefits.
The list of naturally occurring antioxidants is quite impressive and includes tocopherols (many with vitamin E function), vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid), provitamin A (carotenoids), rosemary extract (carnosic and rosmarinic acids), lecithin and several other substances.
Foods serving as rich sources of natural antioxidants include berries (blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, and strawberries among others), pecans and walnuts, green and white tea, olive and pumpkinseed oils, just to name a few.
Consumption of these foods rich in natural antioxidants can benefit one’s health immensely. Examples of these include slowing down the signs of ageing skin and reducing the risks of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
While vitamins E and C enjoy the greatest popularity among naturally sourced products for preventing food from spoiling, rosemary extract is increasingly gaining importance as a powerful source of natural antioxidants.
The Rosemary We All Know
Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary (rosmarinus officinalis) is widely cultivated, including in North America. The genus and common name are derived from Latin ‘ros marinus’ meaning ‘dew of the sea’ since the plant grows profusely near the shores of the Mediterranean Sea where it gets sprayed by sea foam.
The fresh and dried leaves are frequently used in traditional Mediterranean cuisine as a herb, especially for meals based on chicken and lamb. Its leaves can be harvested at any time, although they are at their best during the flowering period.
Rosemary serves as a wonderful tonic, particularly for the heart, brain and nervous system, and heightens concentration by stimulating blood circulation. Its active components (carnosic, rosmarinic and ursolic acid) have anti-ageing properties for the skin and its bitterness stimulates the liver and gallbladder functions to aid the digestion of fats.
But one property has become particularly important for the food, cosmetic and nutraceutical industries: rosemary is a source of very powerful natural antioxidants.
The Greater Face Of Rosemary
Although still considered a spice or flavour by the general public and regulatory community, rosemary is making strong headway in also being recognised and classified as a source of natural antioxidants and has already been put to use as such in countless applications. Rosemary consists of carnosic and rosmarinic acids, which enable it to play an active antioxidant role. Modern science and technology have found a way to concentrate these substances and make them even more powerful in the form of rosemary extract.
Rosemary extracts come in many shapes and forms—liquid or powder, oil or water soluble, at various grades of bitterness and odour or even odourless—making them suitable for numerous applications in the food, cosmetics, nutraceutical and animal feed industries.
The meat and deli industries number among the most promising and beneficial settings for rosemary extract applications. Many companies in the EU, US, Canada and South America are successfully using rosemary extracts for protecting their meats and meat products from oxidation and rancidity. Besides attaining prolonged shelf-life and better sensory qualities for their products, these companies enjoy the advantages associated with ‘clean labels’ as well as commendations from their customers for supplying them with healthful natural products.
This positive wind of change has, interestingly enough, reached Slovenian borders as well. Leading companies seized the growing market opportunities for natural rosemary extracts some 15 years ago, undertaking extensive research in this field followed by production and exports to the EU, US, Canada and Japan.
Research by these companies has shown that by adding oil-soluble rosemary extracts to freshly ground chilled pork and beef, shelf-life is prolonged five-fold and the meat stays fresh for much longer.
Similar extension of shelf-life was found when such extracts were added to cooked and cured sausages (e.g. kranjska sausage) containing traditional synthetic antioxidants, as well as with salamis, turkey, chicken and hot dog applications. No resulting changes were observed in odour, flavour, or to the finished product overall. The label remains ‘friendly’ and no allergens were introduced into the product.
Synthetic antioxidant lobbyists may claim that using natural antioxidants will have financial consequences in the form of higher consumer prices, but this is somewhat exaggerated. Rosemary antioxidants are very concentrated and powerful, and can therefore be used at minimal concentrations—as low as 0.02 percent, such that no more than EUR0.02 (US$0.02) per kg would be added to the price, and in any case the customer will have the final word.
The rosemary extract market is already flourishing and growing at an estimated steady pace of 5-7 percent a year. Looking at today’s market with its strong and healthy desire for natural foods, we can be quite certain that rosemary extracts will be a winning way to go forward.