Today’s post is by Sophia L. Cai, an assistant production editor and Newscripts contributor here at C&EN.
While hoards of holiday feasters head back to the gym in the new year, some scientists may be wandering back into the lab to study the holiday feast ingredients. In a just-accepted study in the Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry, Eva Santos-Garcés and colleagues at Spain’s Institute of Agricultural-Alimentary Research & Technology (IRTA) demonstrate a way to monitor the dry curing of hams—a process that produces salty meats such as prosciutto and country hams that can store for months. Monitoring salt and water content ensures a quality product, but it also helps determine water activity, a measure of potential microbial growth and therefore shelf-life.
Instead of using testing methods that require destroying the tasty meats, these researchers have taken a more clinical approach: using a CT scanner. That’s right, the same computed tomography scans more recognizably used to examine head trauma patients or to prescreen for types of cancer have garnered the attention of the food science community in recent years. Because salt ions produce a marked increase in CT attenuation values, the researchers could easily track salt-related benchmarks of hams at various stages of the preservation process. They combined their own CT analytical tools and predictive models in a case study to successfully characterize salt distribution, dehydration, and water activity in dry-cured hams in two different dry-curing production lines.
But popping a ham in a CT scanner isn’t quite as easy as popping it in the oven. The group is currently working to overcome disturbances in its data that are caused by the presence of intramuscular fat, for example.
In the short term, CT-scanned hams will probably be relegated to the lab bench, but Santos-Garcés and her team say that, in the future, industrial producers could take advantage of this technology. Grab some random ham off the belt, run it through a CT scanner, and adjust the salt and water content of the entire batch accordingly. Voilà! In the meantime, though, makers of dry-cured hams will just have to rely on more destructive methods of testing the saltiness of hams in time for the next holiday season.
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