Throughout history, the method of preserving meat has generally followed technological advances. Early types of meat preservatives included salt, sugar, and smoke. Once refrigeration and freezing became possible, these methods also became popular. Once meat preservation experts were able to employ chemicals to keep meat from spoiling or posing a health hazard, artificial preservatives were routinely added to cured and processed meats.
Meat preservatives keep meat from spoiling, taking on an unpalatable appearance, odor, and taste and often causing food-borne illness. By preserving meat, cultures were able to have safe sources of protein, even during famine or poor hunting seasons. Salt is one of the oldest meat preservatives. The Greeks and Romans, as well as other ancient cultures, cured meat by salting it down.
A byproduct of salt is sodium nitrate, which gives the preserved meat, such as bacon and ham, its distinctive reddish color. Sugar is often added to salt when preserving meat. Salting and sugar-curing were often combined with smoking meat to preserve it.
Potting, jarring, and canning are all types of meat preservatives first used when these technologies became viable. In the 1800s, heat sterilization became a typical method of preserving meat and other foods. Food was placed into jars, often with salt and sugar added, and cooked in hot water until its contents remained at 253.4 degrees Fahrenheit (123 degrees Celsius) for 15 minutes or more. This sterilized the meat, killing any bacteria present, including the one that causes deadly botulism.
Refrigeration is one of the more modern meat preservatives. Keeping raw meat at a maximum temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.44 degrees Celsius) typically extends its shelf life to up to a week, while freezing meat at a maximum temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius) can keep it edible for four to 12 months.
Food additives, such as ascorbates and nitric oxide, are typically used as meat preservatives or in conjunction with other preservatives such as salt and sugar. Some of these additives add color and flavor as well as act as a preserving agent.
Artificial preservatives make meat safer to store and consume later, but concerns over the possible negative effects of meat preservatives have emerged through food science research. Preservatives such as nitrates and nitrites have been linked to bladder cancer, heart disease, and type II diabetes. These artificial additives have been suggested as a contributing factor to dementia as well.