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What Are the Different Types of Meat Preservatives?

By DM Gutierrez
Updated May 16, 2024
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Throughout history, the method of preserving meat has generally followed technological advances. Early types of meat preservatives included salt, sugar, and smoke. Once refrigeration and freezing became possible, these methods also became popular. Once meat preservation experts were able to employ chemicals to keep meat from spoiling or posing a health hazard, artificial preservatives were routinely added to cured and processed meats.

Meat preservatives keep meat from spoiling, taking on an unpalatable appearance, odor, and taste and often causing food-borne illness. By preserving meat, cultures were able to have safe sources of protein, even during famine or poor hunting seasons. Salt is one of the oldest meat preservatives. The Greeks and Romans, as well as other ancient cultures, cured meat by salting it down.

A byproduct of salt is sodium nitrate, which gives the preserved meat, such as bacon and ham, its distinctive reddish color. Sugar is often added to salt when preserving meat. Salting and sugar-curing were often combined with smoking meat to preserve it.

Potting, jarring, and canning are all types of meat preservatives first used when these technologies became viable. In the 1800s, heat sterilization became a typical method of preserving meat and other foods. Food was placed into jars, often with salt and sugar added, and cooked in hot water until its contents remained at 253.4 degrees Fahrenheit (123 degrees Celsius) for 15 minutes or more. This sterilized the meat, killing any bacteria present, including the one that causes deadly botulism.

Refrigeration is one of the more modern meat preservatives. Keeping raw meat at a maximum temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.44 degrees Celsius) typically extends its shelf life to up to a week, while freezing meat at a maximum temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius) can keep it edible for four to 12 months.

Food additives, such as ascorbates and nitric oxide, are typically used as meat preservatives or in conjunction with other preservatives such as salt and sugar. Some of these additives add color and flavor as well as act as a preserving agent.

Artificial preservatives make meat safer to store and consume later, but concerns over the possible negative effects of meat preservatives have emerged through food science research. Preservatives such as nitrates and nitrites have been linked to bladder cancer, heart disease, and type II diabetes. These artificial additives have been suggested as a contributing factor to dementia as well.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By RoyalSpyder — On Feb 19, 2014

@Chmander - I can clear things up for you. During Morgan Spurlock's experiment, he left a big mac and some french fries in two separate jars for several weeks. Over time, the big mac became rotten and moldy. However, the french fries didn't change, at all. Unfortunately, he never stated a direct reason for this, but it can easily be presumed that McDonald's french fries are full of preservatives. Sometimes, you have to be careful what you eat when you're ordering fast food. After all, preservatives aren't just limited to fruits and vegetables.

By Chmander — On Feb 19, 2014

@Viranty - I've actually seen a similar video, except that it had to do with McDonald's burgers and fries. Have you ever seen a movie called Super Size Me? It's about a man who decides to eat a diet of McDonald's, breakfast lunch and dinner, for thirty days. After the credits, there's a scene where we see him doing an experiment with french fries and a Big Mac. It's been a while, but does anyone remember the scene I'm referring to? I want to explain it the best I can, but my memory is a little fuzzy.

By Viranty — On Feb 18, 2014
@RoyalSpyder - I can definitely see where you're coming from. In fact, the other day, I was watching a video online related to preservatives. Though it discussed potatoes instead of meat, it was still very effective. After all, the topic in this article can apply to just about any food across the globe, right? In the video, a little girl did an experiment with potatoes. She put two in a glass of water.

While one grew nice and healthy in about two weeks, the other one didn't grow any buds. According to her, the preservatives had caused the potato to go out of its natural state. It was interesting in a sense that it showed how with all these preservatives we add to our food, meats and vegetables alike, we're doing more harm than good.

By RoyalSpyder — On Feb 17, 2014
The problem with preserved meat is the chemicals that they put into it. Obviously, it's not a bad thing to want to save your food for later, but aren't there alternative ways? Why not simply put the meat in a refrigerator, or keep it in the freezer so it will last longer? By adding these chemicals to preserve our meat, it's causing us to ingest harmful substances that weren't meant for us in the first place.
By Chmander — On Feb 16, 2014

Like the article states, meat preservatives can be a very helpful thing. Besides, for all that we know, back in the day those weren't available. Because of that, food had to be eaten in one sitting, or it had to be soaked in spices. Besides, how do you think mice meat pie came along? It's basically a "dessert" of sorts that includes preserved meat. However, is all preserved meat a good thing? I highly doubt it.

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