Color Stability: The Role of Spectrophotometers in the Shelf Life of Meat Products

Remembering back to the countless cafeteria meals that once flooded my lunch diet, I can’t say that I miss the nearly unidentifiable food choices that cluttered my tray on a daily basis. I am sure many people can relate to the timeless rejection of the so-called ‘mystery meat,’ and this notion still holds true today. Speculation about color life and mystery meat products continues to haunt shoppers today. Color stability and the undesirable changes that affect the shelf life of meats in our local supermarkets plays an important role in consumer choice. People want to know exactly what the color of our food means. Is it fresh? Is it safe? Color perception can give consumers preconceived notions as to whether or not meat will even taste good after it is cooked.

Raw Steak Color Life
Even a slight change in color can indicate possible contamination in muscle foods. The use of spectrophotometric technology can help manufacturers analyze potential problems and aid in the measurement color.
Image Source: Flickr user Naotake Murayama

Even a slight change in color can indicate possible contamination in muscle foods. The use of spectrophotometric technology can help manufacturers analyze potential problems and aid in the measurement color.
Image Source: Flickr user Naotake Murayama

Meat industry manufacturers recognize the valuable role that color stability plays in consumer choice, and rely on color measurement tools and spectrophotometers to monitor muscle food products. Understanding the changes in meat color under various conditions and implementing methods to measure color stability has become a finely-tuned science and necessity in the meat marketing business.

The Color of Meat

If you were to walk up to the meat counter at your local supermarket, you would expect to see a fresh assortment of bright red meats. Colors of brown or gray might indicate to most customers spoilage or that the meat has been sitting on the shelf a bit too long. But where do we get the notion that color relates to these traits? It all has to do with myoglobin, the protein that produces this bright red color we come to expect with meats like beef or lamb. Myoglobin does not occur from blood circulating through the meat, but it is actually present in the muscle itself, fixated within the tissues. Spectrophotometers can measure myoglobin using precise color variations to help determine the color life in muscle food products.

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The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) receives numerous calls on a daily basis from consumers concerned about the color of meat products. Since we know that color life matters to the consumer, state-of-the-art technology is necessary to consistently monitor changes that occur in muscle foods after slaughter. In fact, “nearly 15% of retail beef is discounted in price due to surface discoloration, which corresponds to annual revenue losses of $1 billion.” Economic stability in muscle foods and sales is dependent on the ability to extend the color life of products utilizing the knowledge of myoglobin chemistry and color measurement technology.

Applications of color measurement in muscle foods

According to the American Meat Science Association’s (AMSA) Meat Color Measurement Guidelines, “Color evaluation is an essential part of meat research, product development, and troubleshooting of processing problems. When done properly, both visual and instrumental appraisals of color are powerful and useful research tools.” Although these guidelines state that not everyone needs to be an expert in myoglobin chemistry, color evaluation should be performed carefully using the proper instrumentation for regulating color. Specific guidelines have been developed that deal with light absorption and reflectance. These measurements in color stability are often complicated and require advanced spectrophotometric instrumentation and expert support to properly quantify and analyze data, and are essential to product quality.

Raw Hamburger Color Life
Spectrophotometers are used in a variety of color measurement applications, including the amount of fat in muscle food product; an important factor for the health conscious consumer.
Image Source: Flickr user Bob Peters

Spectrophotometers are widely used for measuring color in the meat industry, helping manufacturers control shelf life and monitor for problems or potential contamination. Due to the unstable nature of muscle foods, changes can occur from prolonged exposure to air, outside contamination, and changes in temperature. Constant monitoring is needed to ensure product stability and safety, and is highly dependent on color control. Monitoring fat content also relies on spectrophotometric technology and aids in quality control for a health conscious society. When these aspects are considered and addressed with the appropriate technology, meat production firms are taking care to protect their bottom line.

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The right choice in color measurement

Due to the complex nature of myoglobin chemistry and color stability, it’s important to use the right tools for color measurement. Choices in spectrophotometers can vary, but in order to meet demands in monitoring and generating accurate data for meat color consistency, muscle food industries must select reliable technology. HunterLab’s line of color measurement tools and spectrophotometers are designed specifically to meet industry needs. We work closely with leaders in meat science research and are continually developing products to help industries remain competitive. Contact HunterLab today to learn more.


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