A Buyer’s Guide to Avoiding Hidden Additives in “Fresh” Meats

It was a devastating day when I realized that there are sometimes ingredients in store-bought meats. And I don’t just mean in hotdogs, lunchmeat and bacon….I’m talking about ground beef, steaks, pork chops and fresh chicken!!! And, while many meats do contain a “salt water solution,” salt is not the ingredient I’m referring to.

I buy most of my meat directly from farmers, so it wasn’t until I started helping some friends and family members sift their way through the meat section at local grocery stores, that I realized….Ahhhhh!!!! There’s “junk” in the meat!! (And, unfortunately, there’s “junk” in all sorts of foods that you may not suspect – it’s not just the meats! So be sure to check out my complete shopping guide here!)

One particular friend picked up a package of ground turkey only to find that the package had an ingredients list on the back. Huh? I had to check with my own 2 eyes, but there it was in black and white: “Ingredients: Turkey and natural flavor“!! (And I can only imagine how many folks are selecting ground turkey in an effort to be healthier. Unfortunately, we are being misled. Ughh!!)

I wish that I could assure you that ground turkey is the only suspect, but an inspection of the ground chicken breast package revealed the same…”natural flavor.” I’m not saying this is automatically true of every brand, but be on the look out.

Unfortunately, there’s more bad news. While assisting a friend with her shopping at a local grocery store that doesn’t have an in-house butcher, I discovered that every meat package that I flipped over contained a solution of all sorts of mysterious words…even the ground beef and the steaks! Wild!

I have since learned that, especially when a store doesn’t chop their meat on site, a preservative solution must be added when the meat is processed in order to extend shelf life because by the time it is shipped and reaches the store (often from several states away), the pre-cut/pre-ground meat wouldn’t have much shelf-life left; and that’s not good for business.

Even so, it’s not as simple as just making sure that your grocer has a butcher. Much of what their butcher is chopping may still be filled with solution. Look at the front and back of the package. If it says nothing, then ask the meat department manager just to be certain because sometimes the meats that are packaged at the store don’t list the ingredients on the label.

Think you’ll just play it safe and buy the “fresh” stuff directly from the meat case? Think again. At least in my town, the 2 major chains that have fresh meat cases are selling solution-filled meats in those cases, and you wouldn’t even know unless you ask. The key here is to ask the butcher (or even better, the meat department manager). And ask often because things do change.

I hate to name names because other unmentioned stores may be just as good/bad as any example I give here, and stores may change their processes and void any examples I give here, but I know people are going to ask me, so as of Spring 2011 here’s the scoop for stores in Omaha, NE…

-Amana beef (sold at HyVee) is just meat, no additives.

-Bare Naked Chicken is just chicken, no additives.

-Most Smart Chicken is just chicken; check the label

-Hormel Pork is injected with a “patented solution”. It says so on the label, but if you buy pork from the fresh meat case at HyVee, for instance, this is the meat you are getting and it won’t necessarily have the ingredients listed. (There used to be a sign posted at the meat counter that listed the ingredients of this “solution,” but I’m not sure it’s still there, so here are the details from their website: “Solution Ingredients: Water, Potassium Lactate, Sodium Phosphates, Salt, Sodium Diacetate.”)

-No Frills & Bag N Save both offer tons of meat products with no other ingredients…even their pork products from Farmland’s Best (but not Hormel) are “clean” of added ingredients.

-All chicken and beef products in the refrigerated cases at Costco are just meat. The pork contains a solution – this was not indicated on the package; I asked the butcher!

And Tyson Chicken takes top prize for Best Label Confusion!!! I was under the impression that their chicken was free of added ingredients…and it does say “All Natural” on the package, which brings me to my next point…ignore all claims made on the front of the package. It’s the ingredients list that matters, and words like “natural” are not regulated by the FDA, so companies can make whatever claims they’d like! But I digress.

So I had advised my friend to purchase Tyson chicken because their ingredients label read “clean.” A few months later, I noticed that the meat contained “up to 15% natural broth.” A quick check of the ingredients list revealed that the chicken contained: “chicken, chicken broth, sea salt and natural flavor.” The 2 packages looked exactly the same, except for that little phrase in small print in the purple box that reads, “up to 15% natural broth.” Strange.

Upon further research, I learned that Tyson has 2 varieties of “All Natural” chicken. As their website explains, one is “marinated” (i.e. “natural broth”) and the other is not. But boy do those packages look the same otherwise. From what I have seen, each grocery store tends to sell just one version or the other; so you’ll have to re-check at each store you frequent. And I had actually seen the 2 different packages at 2 different grocers.

At last check, No Frills & Bag N Save carried the unmarinated version that’s just chicken, and Baker’s carries the marinated version. I went back to the 2 different stores to bring you these photos because I just couldn’t believe how similar the packaging looks for 2 totally different products (Note: the package colors are actually exactly the same; they just look different in these photos because I used 2 different cameras.) Anyone else find this deceptive???

    

Several of my family members shop locally at Fareway and every time they’ve asked they’ve been assured by the butcher that their in-house meats are free of additives. I don’t have a Fareway near me, so I haven’t been there personally. But, again, always double-check….even with what I’ve posted here because companies sometimes change their practices and stores can change suppliers/brands, etc.

Obviously, the specific examples listed here do not represent an exhaustive list. This blog is just intended to give you the tools you need to ask the right questions at your meat counter. If you find particular examples that you’d like to add, please comment below :)

In closing, I offer you the following disclaimer:

I am not a fan of store-bought meats at all, and I do not support the way most of those animals are raised or fed. Unfortunately, even if you buy the “cleanest” meat available at most stores, you are still most likely getting much more than just meat (e.g., antibiotics, hormones, corn-fed), but if you must purchase at the store, hopefully this helps you make some more informed decisions.

To access our complete Additive-Free Shopping Guide, please join our online community or purchase a copy of our book or e-book, “Eating Additive-Free“!

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39 thoughts on “A Buyer’s Guide to Avoiding Hidden Additives in “Fresh” Meats

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  5. In New England we have a huge low-price supermarket leader, the MarketBasket chain, which carries the Bell & Evans brand of poultry products. ASK your meat manager to get in their Whole Organic Pastured Air-Chilled chickens! They will get them in for you if we start buying them and keep them moving! Not only do these have no additives and no ‘bleach-bath’ cool-down, they are the most delicious and tender and clean chicken you’ve ever bought outside of a farm. Once you’ve tried one you’ll never go back to bleach-brined processed chem-chickens, I promise you. So far I’ve been getting them at $3.49/lb in 2013 and now into 2014; very much worth it for what you get. NO waste and NO poultry smell at all, just clean and pure and ready to cook!

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  8. Thanks for sharing this today on Facebook, Christy. This is the one thing I have the hardest time explaining to people, especially ones who are just starting out with food allergies and sensitivities. Meat is not just meat more often than not! You need to get it from a trusted source and/or check your labels EVERY SINGLE TIME! People hate hearing this, and they should! It’s not right! I still get irrate going to the store and buying meat because it is so very hard to find meat that is safe. I am glad that my husband hunts so we do get fresh venison, and we can get some chicken that is good but not as often as I’d like. We are slowly working our way into more local farm buying (it can be very pricey, and our budget isn’t always conducive to that), and we are even looking into going with someone to do a cow share or purchasing part of a cow, pig, etc. that we know will be fed properly, if you know what I mean. These are big changes and will take time to fully implement, but they are in the works. :) Anyway, again, I thank you for bringing this out of the archives!

    • You’re welcome! :) Thanks so much for sharing your journey here with all of us! It is SO frustrating, and I look forward to the day when eating isn’t so complicated. Ya know, like the “old days.” :)

  9. My daughter has a corn allergy and it is so hard to find her meat. Most meat is “sterilized” (due to the gross living conditions most factory animals are allowed to live in) with a corn derived citric acid wash during the butchering process. And that nice red looking beef? Yeah, they use dye to make it look more appealing and fresh to the customer. My only current safe meat source for her is my father who is a hunter. I think it’s really sad that commercially available food is so contaminated that my daughter can’t even eat it. Meat should be just meat, it shouldn’t be so complicated.

  10. Unfortunately Organic doesn’t really mean anything any more either…note the antibiotics allowed on organic pears and apples….sigh.
    One more thing to be aware of is that most of the packaging wrap and containers contain a dusting of or are made from genetically modified corn, as are most take out containers etc. I have children with corn allergies, so when I state that to the butcher or store clerk, they tend to be more forthcoming on ingredient and contact issues.

  11. Fully agree! Just wanted to point out that the FDA does not regulate meats, the USDA does. The USDA is not held to the same standards as the FDA…hopefully this will change.

  12. Here is the reply from Hormel, although it doesn’t address with any further information.

    Thank you for contacting us about Hormel pork.We appreciate your taking the time to let us know your thoughts.Your input is valuable to our marketing and production personnel in providing products that meet your needs and address your interests.

    Please feel free to contact us again if you have any further questions or comments. .

    • The scary part is the FDA allows this practice. Pink slime anyone? Certain ingrediants can be considered ‘proprietary’ and as such are not required to be included in the list of ingrediants – hence the term ‘natural flavors’. Same thing applies to cleaning solutions bought off the shelf. I agree, if at all possible stick with your local farms and vinegar.

  13. I looked up the website of Hormel foods and wrote to them how I see this to be deceptive marketing and that I would have to find another source of meat. So I’ll let you know what their response will be. I enjoy cooking and using good quality basic ingredients, although I don’t feel I’m very sensitive to food additives, I think we’d be a lot healthier if we’d use simple basic ingredients without additives. I used to buy cereal in a box, but no more. I make our own bread, english muffins or pancakes biscuits etc. with only the simplest ingredients. Bread buns or english muffins split and toasted… just made with whole wheat (white whole wheat is tasty), yeast, water, salt and a t. of sugar is a real basic breakfast food. We ate them nearly every day for a couple of years and never got tired of them.

    • Good for you for telling them how you feel! It’s consumers like you responding on an individual level that will ultimately turn the food industry allowed. Looks like their reply was a bit useless (as expected, I suppose), but who knows how much difference it may have made internally to the company! Rock on!

  14. This is the third time I am typing this as it has disappeared twice already!
    I was shocked and dismayed yesterday when shopping at the Hy Vee meat counter to discover that all the Hormel meat cuts have additives. I was always under the impression that the meats behind the glass were simply meat. I asked that butcher which lean pork cuts would be good to grind up for lean pork sausage for my husband’s “heart-lowfat, nofat” diet, and that I didn’t want to use the loin roast in the plastic bag because it had the salty tenderizing solution in it. Then he said that all the Hormel meat cuts have the solution in them. I was so disappointed to find that I’ve been fooled for so long. Whatever happened to consumer information? I remember finding the info on the “always tender” plastic wrapped liquidy roasts and thinking that it was a little sneaky to put the ingredients in such small print so it was barely noticeable, but this does bother me. My husband is also not supposed to eat much salt, but how would you know?

    • Yes, I discovered the same thing about Hormel and most of the meats (of any variety) in the case at HyVee…and other stores, too! Agreed, it is INSANE! That’s why I published this blog to help spread the word! (This is the first time I’ve seen your comments, so thanks for re-submitting…I don’t know why it would’ve “disappeared” before…). If you want store-bought pork with no additives, check with the butchers at No Frills, Bag N Save or Fareway :)

  15. So happy to have found this post. I usually buy meats from a farmer but in the winter I do not always plan as well. In warm months I just go to the Farmers Market. I have been getting the BARE chicken at HyVee but am lost about good source of pork. Is the butcher a good person to ask or will he get defensive?

    • Sometimes they get defensive, sometimes they just don’t know (so you may need to speak with a meat dept. manager), and sometimes they are really nice about it. Just tell them you have “extreme food sensitivies” and you need to know 100% for sure if there’s anything in there besides meat or water. If you live in Omaha area, I would try Whole Foods….or Bag N Save…or No Frills…or Fareway. They tend to have NO solution in the meats they package there (but always double check with the butcher from time to time) :)

  16. How about this, just buy organic pastured meats which are fed on grass, local if you can, and skip the factory farmed crap altogether? It costs a little more, so you might have to *gasp* eat a meatless meal once or twice a week, but I swear it won’t kill you, really. The flavor of the meat is better too. It’s a lot better than eating meat from animals fed on GM grain (which is unhealthy for them) that live knee deep in their own waste indoors. Ew! It’s not “yuppie-hippie” meat, it’s not about elitism or any of that bs, it’s about putting real, good food in your body. Pastured meat is higher in certain nutrients too. Think of all the chemicals the “conventionally” raised animal consumes in their feed from pesticides, herbicides, and drugs they might be fed to up production. Compare that to the complete lack of chemicals that organic animals are fed. Which do you think is better? Think about it.

      • I did see, and felt compelled to elaborate. I understand some people are threatened or put off by suggesting organics and that may or may not be why you didn’t really mention much about it in the article, as the “unaffordable yuppiehippie” stigma is so doggedly attached to them. Then again, maybe you were going for the baby-steps approach since some don’t even read labels, they just toss a packet of whatever seems like the good deal in the cart and go on. I can’t imagine not knowing what was in my food. So many people also think that because the junk is allowed in their food it must be *ok* and that cheap is better. In this case though, it’s not just about the cost on your wallet, it’s about the cost on your health, not to mention the treatment of the animals too. Surprisingly, if you snag sales, coupons, and buy your other items like produce in-season, it can negate most if not all the extra cost of buying “organic”. It is so, so worth it. Even when I was poor years ago and on food stamps, I still had mostly organic food because I grew things in pots to supplement what I could buy (food stamps gets you seeds for growing food too). I once got dirty looks from a cashier for buying organic veggies as if I was buying lobster on it or something. I looked her straight in the eye and told her I had just as much right as anybody else not to feed my child poison. She kind of got an “oh!” look on her face and stopped it. I am grateful to not need the assistance anymore and now donate to food pantries, but even when poor I found a way to have the good stuff. So many people just try to buy as much food as possible on their budget without thinking of the content of the food, whereas if they picked foods that might cost more but carried more nutritional bang, they’d actually eat better on the same budget.

        Anyway, it would seem you and I are on the same page :) I hope my comments don’t come off snarky… the typed word is poor at communicating intention and inflection. I’m glad to see another person trying to make a difference!

      • I greatly appreciate the conversation Rachel! I didn’t elaborate on the organics, etc. b/c this particular blog developed as more of a rant based on the shock I experienced when I discovered the extra crap that was in other meats…assuming that my readers already know that organic is the best option, as that is what I advise in general (as mentioned in the beginning and end of this blog). I suppose a bit more context would’ve been useful and informative, so thx for adding your comments :) I do get a lot of questions from folks on limited budgets and food stamps about how to eat real foods when money is super tight. Would you be interested in contributing a guest blog based on your experiences you mention?

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  18. We have been looking closely at the meats for over a year now. My husband has had some interesting discussions with the meat counter and the meat department mangers. It’s interesting how they really believe the beef and other meats to be just fine and it’s good to have those preservatives added. They don’t see a problem grinding up a hundred pr more cows and mixing the meat together… We have found Costco to be the closest and have the most open butchers.
    Great Blog!!

    • That’s interesting because 2 of the butchers I had the longest conversations with were fairly outraged by the additives. Both were meat dept. managers a couple years ago…one at HyVee and one at No Frills. I’m sure many of them are just brainwashed, though ;) The guy at HyVee said they rarely have additive-free meats in the case b/c, for example, the chicken skin will turn color and then no one will buy it….but he didn’t seem to support the method. He really seemed to “feel my pain” in looking for “cleaner” meats. :)

  19. Makes me want to become a farmer to raise my own meats, grains, foods … Anyone interested in starting a Whole Food Only commune where only our own foods will be introduced into the compound?

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