For some the term “Enhanced Meat” has them salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs. Others hear the term and they spin on their heels walking away.
This might have you wondering what is enhanced meat and what’s so good or bad about it.
- Is enhanced meat better? Does it have more flavor?
- Could enhanced meat be bad for you?
These are common, and completely justified questions, that require us to take a closer look at enhanced meat and how common it truly is.
What Is Enhanced Meat?
Enhanced Meat is a Meat industry term used to describe whole cuts of meat that have been modestly processed. This typically involves piercing the meat with a series of tiny needles, while simultaneously injecting it with a saltwater solution infused with additional seasonings.
This both serves to tenderize the meat as well as boost the flavor. Many people who like dry cuts of meat like boneless pork shops and boneless, skinless chicken breasts find Enhanced versions to be juicier and more flavorful when cooked. Especially when it comes to dry cooking methods like grilling, smoking, or oven roasting.
What Is in Enhanced Meat Solution?
The base for an enhanced meat solution starts with salt, water, and sodium phosphate. From there different processors will add their own proprietary seasonings and solutions based on the flavors they want to bring out, or the type of meat.
In some cases, this might be broth, or finely processed herbs and seasonings. Though there is a lot of room for variation.
How Common Is Enhanced Meat?
It’s estimated that 30% of all chicken is enhanced or injected. 15 to 20% of beef and more than 75% of pork is estimated to be enhanced or injected with saltwater solutions and flavor enhancers.
How Does Enhanced Meat Affect Texture & Tenderness?
One of the biggest benefits of enhanced meat is that the puncturing of the injection needles helps break up collagen and other connective tissues to help tenderize the meat. Some solutions also include special tenderizing ingredients that also help soften the meat fibers.
In the case, of softer cuts of meat like chicken thighs and pork tenderloins, this does little to alter the original texture of the meat. Though with other cuts of meat like steak and thick-cut pork chops, it can give the meat a grainy texture.
Is Enhanced Meat Approved by the FDA?
The US Food and Drug Administration has approved and updated the use of enhanced meat in their Food Code Chapters and Annexes to the 2022 edition. It was published on December 28th, 2022. While there’s a lot of dry technical jargon involved here, it basically means that the solution injected into enhanced meat is considered a safe food additive.
At the same time, it also classifies the injection process as an approved method for tenderizing the meat.
The FDA also requires that processors and retailers disclose that the meat has been altered or enhanced on the packaging viewed by the consumer. This means that they have to display it somewhere on the tag or packaging at the grocery store. Though it can be in small print.
Is Enhanced Meat Bad For You?
Just because it’s approved as a food additive and tenderizing process by the US FDA doesn’t mean that enhanced meat is good for you. It just means that it’s not going to immediately make you sick. At this time, there’s also no hard science indicating if it can increase cancer risk or contribute to other long-term health conditions.
However, the increased sodium content in enhanced meat can be an issue for individuals with hypertension and/or those who are on a sodium-controlled diet.
Where to Find Enhanced Meat?
Discount grocery stores and department stores with grocery sections are the most common places where you will find enhanced meat. They tend to get their meats directly shipped from processors and don’t have a formal butchering operation. Usually, if you can also buy a pair of shoes in that store, then you should assume most, if-not-all of the meat they sell is enhanced, injected, or modified in some way.
A lot of urban meat markets that sell meat frozen in packages in the freezer case, will also have enhanced meat. Though usually their fresh offerings in the display case won’t be enhanced. This is due to the way enhanced meat tends to weep moisture when thawed and unwrapped.
How to Avoid Enhanced Meat?
If you’re trying to stay away from additives, you’re on a sodium-controlled diet, or you just want to only eat the real thing, there is still a fair amount of unmodified meat sources out there. If you’re ever in doubt about a piece of meat, the packaging is required by law to note that it’s enhanced and/or mechanically tenderized.
The Country Butcher
Country butchers are rare these days and only found in rural communities. They tend to process most of their animals in-house, or they have a regional co-packer handling it. They very rarely if ever have enhanced meat in their stores.
Community Supported Agriculture farms that offer meat subscriptions rarely ever have enhanced meat. They are selling you a premium product experience and they want you to taste their meat for what it is and appreciate its texture. Enhanced meat processing goes against this. Though CSA meat subscriptions rarely provide enough meat to feed a family for an entire month.
Buying a Half or Quarter
Full-service butchers and country butchers often offer quarter and half steers and hogs. These are cut down from farm-harvested animals that are butchered by hand. Though you need to have the freezer space to accommodate a hundred pounds or more of meat!
The Display Case
Display cases in grocery stores and urban meat markets rarely have enhanced meat. This is due to the way enhanced meat tends to weep the injected solution back out. It makes for an unappealing display case. So, even if their wrapped offerings are enhanced, you can usually trust that the fresh meat in the display case isn’t enhanced or mechanically tenderized.
Is Enhanced Meat Good for Grilling & Smoking?
Barbecue purists will tell you that enhanced meat is terrible for smoking. Especially when it comes to larger, fattier cuts like a Boston butt pork shoulder or beef brisket. The solution tends to interfere with the rendering of fat, while also giving the meat a mushy texture in the end product.
Though leaner meats, like spatchcocked chicken and turkey in a smoker, tend to stand up just fine. They often benefit from the additional juices to keep the meat from drying out.
When it comes to grilling. Enhanced meat tends to have a grainy texture. Especially in meats, like steak, that aren’t always cooked to well-done. Most steak lovers will avoid enhanced steaks like the plague.
Though with pork, which you typically do grill well done, and is often prone to drying out on the grill, enhanced meat can be helpful. Especially in lean cuts like pork tenderloin.