Sakto lang! No more, no less is the way to go in processing food and the exact recommended measurements of preservatives must be strictly followed to keep our food safe for consumption.

Studies have shown that nitrite plays a key role in the preservation of meat products such as tocino and longganisa. While the consumption of too much nitrite over long periods of time could have carcinogenic risks, its underapplication, on the other hand, may also pose another health risk, as this could shorten the product’s shelf life and compromise the integrity of the meat products.

Nitrite used in meat curing adds a distinct color and flavor and enhances the antioxidant activity of processed meat products. It helps prevent the product from turning rancid and it controls the growth of foodborne pathogens, such as Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium which causes botulism. Botulism is a rare and potentially fatal illness caused by the toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which may result in weakness, blurred vision, fatigue, and difficulty in speaking and in breathing.

According to the World Health Organization, foodborne botulism, which is caused by the consumption of improperly processed food, is rare but can be potentially fatal if not diagnosed immediately and treated accordingly.

A team of researchers from the University of the Philippines Mindanao (UP Mindanao) conducted a study “Linking Socio-demographics of Meat Vendor-processors to Residual Nitrite in Skinless Native Sausage Sold in a Typical Public Market in the Philippines,” which examined a total of 90 cured skinless longganisa packs weighing 120–320 grams per pack, collected from the vendor-processors at a typical public market in Davao City.

“The study results demonstrated that all skinless longganisa samples gathered had residual nitrite levels ranging from 0.005–1.031 mg/kg, which is way below the minimum required amount of 50 mg/kg for the inhibition of Clostridium botulinum,” says Dr. Virginia P. Obsioma, Professor at the Department of Food Science and Chemistry, College of Science and Mathematics, UP Mindanao.

 (Photo Credit: UP-Mindanao research team Researcher conducting a survey among longganisa vendor-processors in a typical public market in Davao City)

In relevant and earlier studies, it was explained that the underapplication or lack of nitrite used may, on the one hand, compromise the microbiological safety of cured meat. It was also found previously that, traditionally, Filipino market vendors primarily used nitrite more for color, texture, and flavor functions, rather than as a preservative or antimicrobial agent.

The current study, however, finds that the extreme precaution of the vendor processors, which may have led to their underapplication of nitrite in skinless longganisa, may have been a result of their fear of the ill effects of overapplication of nitrite.

The study also revealed that those with higher educational attainment tend to apply less residual nitrite levels for food preservation, with the values falling way below the recommended limit. The skinless longganisa processed by the vendor-processors who reached high school was found to have lower residual nitrite compared to that processed by those who attained elementary education.

Furthermore, the study revealed that skinless longganisa vendor processors who are married tend to incorporate more nitrite into their products, compared to their unmarried counterparts. The same result was observed among longganisa processors with children in the household, as they tend to increase the application of nitrite to make the color and flavor more pleasing to the consumers.

“There is a need to improve the food safety knowledge and practices of the skinless longganisa vendor-processors, specifically in the application of appropriate nitrite levels to ensure the safety of the processed meat,” Kriza Faye A. Calumba, also a member of the research team, said.

The team also recommends that food safety seminars must be regularly conducted to educate food processors and vendors on appropriate amounts of nitrite and emphasize the correct measurements to apply to avoid the bad effects of both overapplication and underapplication.

Likewise, the researchers suggested that the seminar can be conducted in the vernacular to ensure easy and correct understanding by all participants.

Realizing the practical value of the study, this can serve as a relevant information for local government units and government agencies mandated to oversee the safety of products sold commercially for the protection of the consuming public. 

This study appeared in the Philippine Journal of Science (Vol. 149, No. 4, December 2020), the oldest science journal in the country, published by the Department of Science and Technology-Science and Technology Information Institute (DOST-STII). For detailed information on the study, you may visit the link (Geraldine Bulaon-Ducusin, S&T Media Service)

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