rotten steak

Meat Color

What color should your meat be?

Color is important when meat and poultry are purchased, stored, and cooked. Often an attractive, bright color is a consideration for the purchase. So, why are there differences in the color and what do they mean? Listed below are some questions and answers to help you understand the color differences.

IF IN DOUBT - THROW IT OUT... don't get salmonella...

Information regarding water in meat...

1. What factors affect the color of meat and poultry?

Myoglobin, a protein, is responsible for the majority of the red color. Myoglobin doesn't circulate in the blood but is fixed in the tissue cells and is purplish in color. When it is mixed with oxygen, it becomes oxymyoglobin and produces a bright red color. The remaining color comes from the hemoglobin which occurs mainly in the circulating blood, but a small amount can be found in the tissues after slaughter.

Color is also influenced by the age of the animal, the species, sex, diet, and even the exercise it gets. The meat from older animals will be darker in color because the myoglobin level increases with age. Exercised muscles are always darker in color, which means the same animal can have variations of color in its muscles.

In addition, the color of meat and poultry can change as it is being stored at retail and in the home (see explanation in question 5). When safely stored in the refrigerator or freezer, color changes are normal for fresh meat and poultry.

2. Does a change in color indicate spoilage?

Change in color alone does not mean the product is spoiled. Color changes are normal for fresh product. With spoilage there can be a change in color—often a fading or darkening. In addition to the color change, the meat or poultry will have an off odor, be sticky or tacky to the touch, or it may be slimy. If meat has developed these characteristics, it should not be used.

3. If the color of meat and poultry changes while frozen, is it safe?

Color changes, while meat and poultry are frozen, occur just as they do in the refrigerator. Fading and darkening, for example, do not affect their safety. These changes are minimized by using freezer-type wrapping and by expelling as much air as possible from the package.

4. What are the white dried patches on frozen meat and poultry?

The white dried patches indicate freezer burn. When meat and poultry have been frozen for an extended period of time or have not been wrapped and sealed properly, this will occur. The product remains safe to eat, but the areas with freezer burn will be dried out and tasteless and can be trimmed away if desired.


5. When displayed at the grocery store, why is some meat bright red and other meat very dark in color?

Optimum surface color of fresh meat (i.e., cherry-red for beef; dark cherry-red for lamb; grayish-pink for pork; and pale pink for veal) is highly unstable and short-lived. When meat is fresh and protected from contact with air (such as in vacuum packages), it has the purple-red color that comes from myoglobin, one of the two key pigments responsible for the color of meat. When exposed to air, myoglobin forms the pigment, oxymyoglobin, which gives meat a pleasingly cherry-red color. The use of a plastic wrap that allows oxygen to pass through it helps ensure that the cut meats will retain this bright red color. However, exposure to store lighting as well as the continued contact of myoglobin and oxymyoglobin with oxygen leads to the formation of metmyoglobin, a pigment that turns meat brownish-red. This color change alone does not mean the product is spoiled (see explanation in question 2).

6. Why is pre-packaged ground beef red on the outside and sometimes grayish-brown on the inside?

These color differences do not indicate that the meat is spoiled or old. As discussed earlier, fresh cut meat is purplish in color. Oxygen from the air reacts with meat pigments to form a bright red color which is usually seen on the surface of ground beef purchased in the supermarket. The interior of the meat may be grayish-brown due to the lack of oxygen penetrating below the surface.

7. A beef roast has darkened in the refrigerator, is it safe?

Yes, it is safe. The darkening is due to oxidation, the chemical changes in myoglobin due to the oxygen content. This is a normal change during refrigerator storage.

8. Can cooked ground beef still be pink inside?

Yes, ground beef can be pink inside after it is safely cooked. The pink color can be due to a reaction between the oven heat and myoglobin, which causes a red or pink color. It can also occur when vegetables containing nitrites are cooked along with the meat. Because doneness and safety cannot be judged by color, it is very important to use a food thermometer when cooking ground beef. To be sure all harmful bacteria are destroyed, cook raw ground beef to an internal temperature of 160 °F as measured with a food thermometer.

9. What causes iridescent colors on meats?

Meat contains iron, fat, and other compounds. When light hits a slice of meat, it splits into colors like a rainbow. There are various pigments in meat compounds that can give it an iridescent or greenish cast when exposed to heat and processing. Wrapping the meat in airtight packages and storing it away from light will help prevent this situation. Iridescence does not represent decreased quality or safety of the meat.

10. What causes grayish or green color on cured meats?

Exposure to light and oxygen causes oxidation to take place, which causes the breaking down of color pigments formed during the curing process. Chemicals in the cure and oxygen, as well as energy from ultraviolet and visible light, contribute to both the chemical breakdown and microbial spoilage of the product. Cure, such as nitrite, chemically changes the color of muscle. Curing solutions are colored in order to distinguish them from other ingredients (such as sugar or salt) used in fresh and cured meat products. For example, cured raw pork is gray, but cured cooked pork (e.g., ham) is light pink.


11. What is the usual color of raw poultry?

Raw poultry can vary from a bluish-white to yellow. All of these colors are normal and are a direct result of breed, exercise, age, and/or diet. Younger poultry has less fat under the skin, which can cause the bluish cast, and the yellow skin could be a result of marigolds in the feed.

12. What causes the differences in color of raw ground poultry?

Ground poultry varies in color according to the part being ground. Darker pink means more dark meat was used and a lighter pink means more white meat was included (or skin was included). Ground poultry can contain only muscle meat and skin with attached fat in proportion to the whole bird.

13. What causes dark bones in cooked poultry?

Darkening of bones and meat around the bones occurs primarily in young (6-8 weeks) broiler-fryer chickens. Since the bones have not calcified or hardened completely, pigment from the bone marrow seeps through the bones and into the surrounding area. Freezing can also contribute to this darkening. This is an aesthetic issue and not a safety one. The meat is safe to eat when all parts have reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.

14. What color is safely cooked poultry?

Safely cooked poultry can vary in color from white to pink to tan. For safety when cooking poultry, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature. For a whole chicken or turkey, check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. All the meat—including any that remains pink—is safe to eat as soon as all parts reach at least 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.

15. Why is some cooked poultry pink?

Chemical changes occur during cooking. Oven gases in a heated gas or electric oven react chemically with hemoglobin in the meat tissues to give it a pink tinge. Often meat of younger birds shows the most pink because their thinner skins permit oven gases to reach the flesh. Older animals have a fat layer under their skin, giving the flesh added protection from the gases. Older poultry may be pink in spots where fat is absent from the skin. Also, nitrates and nitrites, which are often used as preservatives or may occur naturally in the feed or water supply used, can cause a pink color.

16. If fully cooked smoked poultry is pink, is it safe?

Poultry grilled or smoked outdoors can be pink, even when all parts have attained temperatures well above 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer. There may be a pink-colored rim about one-half inch wide around the outside of the cooked product. Commercially prepared, smoked poultry is usually pink because it is prepared with natural smoke and liquid smoke flavor.


Water in Meat and Poultry

"Why is all this water in the meat and poultry packages?" "There is so much water in my roast that I can't brown it — it's simmering instead!" "Are they injecting water into chickens?" These are some of the questions that consumers have asked about water in packages of fresh meat and poultry. Here is some background information about water in meat and poultry.

Naturally Occurring Moisture Content of Meat and Poultry
Meat and poultry are composed of naturally occurring water, muscle, connective tissue, fat, and bone. People eat meat for the muscle. The muscle is approximately 75% water (although different cuts may have more or less water) and 20% protein, with the remaining 5% representing a combination of fat, carbohydrate, and minerals. The percentage of naturally occurring water in meat varies with the type of muscle, the kind of meat, the season of the year, and the pH of the meat. Fat in meat is found both between muscles and within muscles. In both locations, fat contributes to overall flavor and juiciness in meats.

Water Content of Meat and Poultry
The amount of naturally occurring water, or moisture, present in meat and poultry may surprise consumers (see chart). An eye of round roast is 73% water before cooking. The same roast after roasting contains 65% water. A whole broiler-fryer contains 66% water before cooking and 60% afterwards. Leaner meat and poultry contain more protein and less fat. Since water is a component of protein (but not fat), a leaner cut will contain slightly more water on a per weight basis.

Product Name Percentage Water
Raw Cooked
Chicken fryer, whole 66% 60%
White meat chicken, with skin 69% 61%
Dark meat chicken, with skin 66% 59%
Ground beef, 85% lean 64% 60%
Ground beef, 73% lean 56% 55%
Beef, eye of round 73% 65%
Beef, whole brisket 71% 56%

Leaner Beef Contains More Water
Many comments theses days are that today's beef contains more water and also doesn't taste the same as in the past. One reason for this is that today's animals are bred to be leaner. Meat from these animals is naturally leaner and contains more water. The fat in meat contributes to flavor, so a leaner cut will taste different than a fattier cut. Some of these leaner cuts are enhanced with a flavor solution.

Enhanced Meat and Poultry Products
Many grocery stores are now offering meat and poultry products that have flavoring solutions added to them. For example, pork chops may be packaged with a solution of water, salt, and sodium phosphate (a solution that can add flavor and moisture to leaner meats). These new products also provide convenience by saving steps in preparation, such as "Teriyaki Beef in Teriyaki Sauce." To prevent confusion, the presence of flavor solutions must be stated on the front of the package.

Enhanced or value-added meat and poultry products are raw products that contain flavor solutions added through marinating, needle injecting, soaking, etc. The presence and amount of the solution will be featured as part of the product name, for example, "Chicken Thighs Flavored with up to 10% of a Solution" or "Beef Steak Marinated with 6% of a Flavor Solution." The ingredients of the flavor solution must be prominently identified on the label. Typically, this information will be on the principal display panel or the information panel.

The labeling term "marinated" can only be used with specific amounts of solution. "Marinated" meats can contain no more than 10% solution; boneless poultry, no more than 8% solution; and bone-in poultry, no more than 3% solution.

In the case of enhanced products, the solutions that are added to the meat or poultry, or into which the meat or poultry are placed for flavoring, seasoning, and tenderizing, are intended to be part of the product. The solutions are required by regulations and policies to be identified as part of the product names of the enhanced products, and whether the solution is incorporated into the product or is free-flowing, it is considered part of the product.

Natural Products
All raw single ingredient meat and poultry qualify as "natural." However, certain products labeled as natural may also contain a flavoring solution provided the solution contains ingredients that are minimally processed and not artificial; e.g., natural flavoring. The amount of solution added to products bearing natural claims is not limited. All products claiming to be natural should be accompanied by a brief statement which explains what is meant by the term "natural."

Freezing Meat and Poultry
When meat and poultry are frozen, the water that is a natural component of all meats turns to solid ice crystals. The water expands when it freezes. The sharp-edged crystals push into the surrounding tissue, rupturing the cells. The water that is outside the cell membrane freezes first. As it does, it leeches water from inside the cell membranes. When it thaws, the original balance does not return to normal. The thawed product will have lost some of its natural springiness. The water released during freezing seeps out of the thawing meat and poultry into the package.

The faster meat and poultry freezes, the smaller the ice crystals will be. Smaller ice crystals will do less damage. Products that are flash-frozen by the manufacturer will have superior quality to fresh products frozen by the consumer.

Moisture Loss from Meat and Poultry
Meat and poultry are transported from slaughter and processing plants in refrigerated trucks that can be kept as cold as 1°F. Although they may not be frozen solid, they are in a semi-frozen or "hard-chilled" state. Any moisture that is in the product is thus held in the tissue of the product.

Beef is often ground while partially frozen. Because ice crystals are in the frozen beef, there may appear to be more liquid in it.

At the grocery store, the products are displayed in refrigerator cases as cold as 26 °F. At this temperature, the cells of the product will "loosen up" somewhat and some of the moisture will melt and gradually seep out. The production of this visible meat or poultry juice is known in the industry as weep or purge. It occurs during display of retail cuts, during shipment of wholesale cuts, and during storage of cuts prior to shipment.

Packaging of Meat and Poultry
Some meat and poultry products are vacuum-packed to prolong the storage times. Products are packaged in air- and leak-proof packages under vacuum, and, in some cases, a specific gas will be pumped into the package to preserve flavor and quality. While the package sits in the refrigerator case, the vacuum is still in effect, extracting the juices out of the meat. Because these packages are airtight and leak proof, the juices accumulate in the package. In contrast, the plastic wrapped packaging, typically used by most supermarkets, allows a certain amount of evaporation.

Retained Water in Raw Poultry Products
Poultry is not injected with water, but some water is absorbed during cooling in a "chill-tank," a large vat of cold, moving water. The chill-tank lowers the temperature of the slaughtered birds and their giblets (hearts, livers, gizzards, etc). During this water chilling process, turkeys and chickens will absorb some of the water, and this amount must be prominently declared on the label. It is not unusual for poultry to declare 8 to 12% retained water on the label.

Retained Water in Raw Meat Products
Beef is rinsed during slaughter, but the small amount of water used is usually absorbed on the surface of the meat, not bound to the protein or inside the tissue, and quickly evaporates or drips out. Meat processors will periodically shower red meat carcasses to minimize moisture loss or "shrink" that occurs in the cooler prior to processing. Beef carcasses and their parts cooled with water during post-evisceration processing must be appropriately labeled with the retained water statement.

Cooking Meat and Poultry
In general, the higher the cooking temperature, the more moisture will be lost in cooking. It is not unusual for a beef roast to lose 1/3 of its original size and weight when cooked at a high temperature or cooked too long.

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