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Ricardo-Rodrigues, S.; Rouxinol, M.I.; Agulheiro-Santos, A.C.; Potes, M.E.; Laranjo, M.; Elias, M. Essential Oils in Meat Preservation. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 17 April 2024).
Ricardo-Rodrigues S, Rouxinol MI, Agulheiro-Santos AC, Potes ME, Laranjo M, Elias M. Essential Oils in Meat Preservation. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed April 17, 2024.
Ricardo-Rodrigues, Sara, Maria Inês Rouxinol, Ana Cristina Agulheiro-Santos, Maria Eduarda Potes, Marta Laranjo, Miguel Elias. "Essential Oils in Meat Preservation" Encyclopedia, (accessed April 17, 2024).
Ricardo-Rodrigues, S., Rouxinol, M.I., Agulheiro-Santos, A.C., Potes, M.E., Laranjo, M., & Elias, M. (2024, February 26). Essential Oils in Meat Preservation. In Encyclopedia.
Ricardo-Rodrigues, Sara, et al. "Essential Oils in Meat Preservation." Encyclopedia. Web. 26 February, 2024.
Essential Oils in Meat Preservation

Consumers are looking for safer and more natural food options that are produced through natural methods without using synthetic preservatives. They also desire extended shelf life for their food products. Several medicinal and aromatic plants species combine food, spice, aromatic, and medicinal recognized attributes. The essential oils from these plants contain a unique mixture of compounds specific to each plant, showing notable antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.

essential oils antioxidant activity antimicrobial activity

1. Introduction

The rich natural flora of the Mediterranean region has traditionally been inexhaustible used by local populations for centuries. Human and economic development has been dependent on those natural resources. The Mediterranean region is one of the main centers of plant diversity, where around 25,000 species occur, about half of which are endemic to the zone [1]. Moreover, according to Barata et al. [2], the Mediterranean flora is particularly rich in Aromatic and Medicinal Plants (AMP), mainly of the Labiatae, Umbelliferae, and Compositae families, and the region is also considered to be one of the main centers of diversity for AMP.
Aromatic and Medicinal Plants are mostly used for their essential oils (EOs), which are synthesized and stored in special secretory structures located in leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, barks, and roots. These EOs are volatile at room temperature and may influence both aroma and flavor [3]. These plants have different utilizations: the major use of AMP in the world is as raw materials for essential oil extraction; their non-leafy parts are used as spices for flavoring or seasoning; their leafy or soft flowering parts, herbs, are also used as a flavoring or seasoning; and finally, but not less important, these plants are used, for example, as medicines, cosmetics, botanical pesticides, herbal drinks/teas, and many other options.
Essential oils are obtained from various AMP typically found in regions with temperate to warm climates, such as the Mediterranean region and tropical areas. Their EOs hold significant value, mainly in traditional medicine, healing practices, and gastronomy. The gastronomy of the Mediterranean region makes use of spontaneous aromatic plants and their essential oils, which have been part of the cultural heritage for centuries.

2. Use of Essential Oils in Meat Preservation

Meat is a fundamental component in diets around the world, extremely important for human nutrition and a vital source of nutrients [4].
However, meat is highly susceptible to biochemical and microbial deterioration, particularly during preservation, due to the presence of saturated and unsaturated lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and heme pigments [4][5][6]. According to Kumar and colleagues [7], high concentrations of unsaturated fatty acids favors meat oxidation.
Meat is susceptible to spoilage by bacteria (e.g., Pseudomonas, Acinetobacter-Moraxella, Enterobacteriaceae), molds (such as Fusarium, and Mucor), and yeasts, namely Candida spp.
Fresh meat may undergo oxidative reactions upon exposure to atmospheric oxygen, UV radiation, endogenous enzymes, free radicals, and transition metals. These reactions produce chemical compounds that have cytotoxic, mutagenic, and oxidative effects on human tissues, accelerating aging processes and eventually causing cancer, atherosclerosis, and inflammation [8][9].
Oxidative reactions occur during the conversion of muscle into meat, meat processing, and storage, and constitute one of the main causes associated with the degradation of meat quality [5][10]. The oxidative process induces the degradation of lipid, protein, and color pigment, which leads to losses of nutritional value, texture changes, development of an off flavor and off odor, perceptions of rancidity, discoloration, and the development of toxic compounds, resulting in reduced shelf life [5][10][11][12][13][14].
It should be noted that this type of change occurs more quickly in minced meat than intact meat, because minced meat has a larger surface area which facilitates direct interaction between lipids and air and provides better accessibility for oxidation promoters. These promoters include heme and non-heme iron from meat pigments such as hemoglobin, myoglobin, and phospholipids from disrupted cells [14][15].
The oxidative stability of meat depends on several intrinsic and extrinsic factors, including enzymatic activity, pH, pro-oxidants concentration, temperature, and protein and lipid fraction compositions, which vary according to the animal species [10][16].
Lipids, proteins, and pigment oxidation regularly occur in meat and meat products under conventional storage conditions [5]. According to Zahid and coworkers [14], frozen storage of meat is considered the most effective procedure to prevent oxidation, allowing the preservation of the meat’s quality attributes for a longer period.
To increase the shelf life of meat, the industry has been using synthetic preservatives to prevent or slow down oxidative reactions. However, the majority of these compounds are of synthetic origin, with high concentrations being used, and it is recognized that they negatively affect consumer health due to their toxicological and carcinogenic effects and consumers are aware of this [10][17][18]. The most common food antioxidant additives are butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), propyl gallate (PG), and tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) [10][17].
In recent years, consumers have changed their consumption habits, and keep looking for new food options that combine natural and biologically active ingredients that promote health and are free from additives. The demand for more healthy and eco-friendly products is currently one of the biggest challenges for the food industry. The food market is looking for natural antioxidants. These antioxidants can prevent oxidative chain reactions, diminish oxidation processes, and extend the shelf life of high-fat meat [7][17]. Thus, the use of several plant extracts and essential oils from different sources, such as aromatic plants, fruits, leaves, seeds, and spices, has emerged as a viable alternative to preserve meat and reduce or delay spoilage [9][19][20].
The effect of natural antioxidants in meat varies with the composition of the plant extract, their antioxidant activity, application form, food processing, and meat matrix considering the fraction compositions of the lipid and protein [10].
It is also important to note that extracts and essential oils have different biological activities according to the nature of the raw material and the obtention process, so it is extremely important to have a good assessment of the chemical composition due to their complex natural mixtures and often synergistic effects with other components [21].
According to Cunha and coworkers [10], the conventional method of incorporating natural antioxidants into meat (pieces, slices, ground or small pieces) is more effective at preventing lipid and protein oxidation than spraying them onto the surface, because there is more contact between susceptible compounds and antioxidants. However, this application method has been subject of some controversy, considering that compounds based on botanical sources have low water solubility, low chemical stability, and limited biological activity, which could be a problem when acting as antioxidants [22]. In recent years, several studies have been carried out on meat and meat products to evaluate the effectiveness of essential oils as antimicrobials and antioxidants (Table 1).
Table 1. Impact of different preservation protocols on the shelf life of different meats and meat products.
Estévez and colleagues [23] studied the impact of synthetic and natural antioxidants on protein oxidation in porcine liver pâté, finding evidence that the use of sage and rosemary essential oils exhibited similar antioxidant properties to BHT, therefore suggesting that they could be a viable alternative to synthetic antioxidants. More recently, Zahid and colleagues [14], considering the utilization of Syzygium aromaticum extract as a natural antioxidant instead of BHT in cooked ground beef during frozen storage, found that lipid oxidation and volatiles formation were minimized.
According to Laranjo and co-workers [24], the application of thyme EO in pork meat showed promising results in reducing the count of microbial groups, particularly for the population of enterobacteria. However, oregano EO revealed no significant reduction in the population of the studied microbial groups.
Fratianni et al. [25] evaluated the effect of thyme essential oil on the preservation of chicken breast meat during a storage period of 3 weeks at 4 °C. The results showed that the application of 0.5% of thyme essential oil is effective in preserving the meat. Throughout the storage period, radical formation is reduced, lipid peroxidation is decreased, sarcoplasmic proteins are preserved, deterioration reactions are minimized, and the shelf life of chicken breast meat is extended. The thyme EO exhibited a DPPH (2,2-diphenyl-1-picrylhydrazyl) inhibition percentage ranging between 25% and 30% when compared to the control treatment. It is important to state that the higher antioxidant activity of thyme EO is due to its high carvacrol content. Additionally, the application of this oil led to a decrease in the natural microflora present in the meat, and effectively inhibited the growth of E. coli.
Asuoty and co-workers [26] obtained similar results in their study by applying thyme essential oil and acetic acid to fresh beef steaks. The results indicate that treating raw beef meat with thyme EO, acetic acid, and their combination has a beneficial effect on reducing meat oxidation compared to the control treatment, allowing the shelf life of this product to be extended.
The study of Khaleque and colleagues [27] showed that 10% clove EO completely inactivated Listeria monocytogenes after 3 days at storage temperature, however, cinnamon EO was not effective in inactivating.
The in vitro study carried out by Zengin and Baysal [21] has shown that clove essential oil had greater antioxidant activity than thyme oil. In the same study, the authors evaluated the effect of these two essential oils in controlling the lipid oxidation of minced beef, and observed that the EOs were able to delay lipid oxidation during 9 days of storage at 4 °C. The essential oils of thyme and clove showed strong antimicrobial activity against all the spoilage and pathogenic bacteria tested.
Recent publications have considered the application of plant extracts and essential oils in meats through the use of encapsulation and nanoemulsification techniques [28], as well as their inclusion in the formulation of edible coatings and active packaging [9]. Thus, their dispersibility, chemical stability, and matrix compatibility can be guaranteed [22]. These new methods improve the cost–benefit ratio of adding natural antioxidants to meat by reducing the amount of antioxidant used and allowing these compounds to be more safely and cleanly applied to food [9][28]. Through these technologies the natural antioxidant is applied to the intrinsic component of the packaging and polymer film, and so the antioxidant effect gradually acts on the packaged meat [9][22].
Obtaining natural antioxidants could involve the use of by-products from the food industry, from a circular economy perspective, allowing recovering waste from various industries [22]. Free-form EOs engage with lipids in microbial and mitochondrial membranes, increasing permeability, inducing changes in membrane potential, leading to ion loss, disrupting the proton pump, and disturbing the microbial metabolism, ultimately resulting in lysis and microbial death. In contrast, the precise mode of action of nanoencapsulated EOs is not fully understood, with hypothesized enhancement of activity due to reduced size facilitating more efficient interaction with cell membranes. Lower doses can be employed, and certain carriers possess antimicrobial activity, altering membrane potential, generating reactive oxygen species, and influencing microbial metabolism. The antimicrobial efficacy of EOs is primarily attributed to phenolic components, with a suggested synergistic effect involving minor components such as monoterpene hydrocarbons. Additionally, some propose synergistic actions between nano-EOs and encapsulation carriers, shielding EOs from food matrices and facilitating transfer to specific targeted sites [29]. According to Šojić and colleagues [30], the use of wild thyme by-product extract is useful as a natural antioxidant in ground pork patties, because it inhibited lipid oxidation and reduced protein oxidation during storage (4 °C for 3 days).
Additionally, the incorporation of natural antioxidants into animal feed is a good way to guarantee the oxidative stability of meat. Many studies have shown the benefits of adding natural antioxidants (e.g., thyme, clove, oregano, and rosemary) to animal feed, with effects on the animal’s health and performance, as well as on the quality of the meat [31][32][33][34].
The incorporation of essential oils into food formulations can have an impact on sensory quality and consumer acceptance [28]. According to Danilović et al. [35], the addition of essential oils to minced pork, especially in high concentrations, in order to control oxidative stability and microbial growth, can cause changes in the sensory characteristics of the product, particularly due to the intense smell and flavor. It is therefore important to choose minimum concentrations of essential oils, to ensure that the concentration is sufficient for their antioxidant action, antimicrobial activity, and to increase the shelf life, but without sensory alterations that depreciate the final product.


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