by Anne Oberdorf, Technical Communications, Delacon, Austria


I admit it. I am a passionate meat eater. Especially, with the beginning of the summer season, I am happy about my spicy pork steak, which is sizzling on the grill. Did you know that the tenderness and palatability of the meat is strongly related to the feeding of the animal?

Carcass and meat quality are not only influenced by the genetic line or the sex of the pig - it is also the feed and especially natural, phytogenic feed additives that make a good piece of meat something special.

The quality of pork meat is determined by the entire supply chain - from feeding the animals on farm to the shop counter. While the consumer at the counter wants a high shelf life and food safety in addition to animal welfare, the farmer strives for the most efficient, sustainable and thus profitable production possible.

In addition to genetics, low stress handling, meat processing and, above all: feeding, play a major role when it comes to optimum meat quality and carcass characteristics.

Phytogenics, which include a wide range of plants such as herbs spices and other plant extracts such as essential oils, not only have a positive effect on feed efficiency required in profitable meat production but also on meat quality and optimisation of carcass properties.

Thus, positive effects of phytogenics on protein deposition can be determined, which leads to carcasses with a higher lean meat content and a reduced lipid oxidation, which improves meat quality. Let's have a detailed look at the reasons why phytogenics have beneficial effects on meat quality, carcass properties and consumer demand:


1. Phytogenics improve carcass characteristics

Did you know that phytogenics are able to modulate intracellular signalling cascades that are involved in oxidative processes and insulin resistance? It's true: several studies have shown that some phytogenics stimulate tissue insulin sensitivity and increase the activity of proteins involved in the insulin signaling cascade within the cell.

The upregulation of these functions leads to an increased expression of genes that are related to protein synthesis and cell proliferation and at the same time inhibit apoptosis. Thus, the feeding of phytogenic feed additives (PFAs) can ultimately lead to increased muscle growth.

Moreover, aromatic phytogenics, such as selected essential oils, increase the feed intake, as they improve the diets palatability. This increase in feed intake may lead to higher average daily gains which shorten the fattening period - resulting in higher profitability to the farmer.

In addition to an increase in muscle percentage, selected phytogenics are also able to increase protein digestibility, which goes along with an improvement in other carcass characteristics: a study carried out at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, showed that the addition of a PFA with selected active ingredients such as essential oils and saponins, specially tailored to the needs of fattening pigs, leads to an increase in digestibility of ileal protein by 3.7 percent (76 vs. 79%, p<0.05) and nitrogen storage by 8.8 percent.

The effects of more efficient nitrogen utilisation and deposition on carcass characteristics were also confirmed in a trial at the IRTA agricultural research institute in Spain.

Computed tomography (CT) of live animals during the growing and finishing phase and of carcasses at slaughter also showed a significant increase on loin area (longissimus dorsi). The loin area at slaughter (110 kg live weight) was increased by 7.8 percent for the tested product compared to control.


2. Meat quality is improved naturally

Not only microbial spoilage, but especially lipid oxidation has a negative influence on the quality of meat products. The products of lipid oxidation, such as lipid hydroperoxides and aldehydes, have a negative impact on the texture, colour, taste, nutritional value and safety of meat products.

To prevent or reduce this oxidative spoilage, synthetic antioxidants (e.g. butylated hydroxytoluene or butylated hydroxyanisole) are used, which are suspected of potentially causing negative health effects.

Thus, in June 2017, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) removed ethoxyquin, one of the most commonly used antioxidants in animal feed, from the authorisation list. This action drives the search for safe and natural solutions: α-Tocopherol, better known as vitamin E, is considered a highly effective lipid-soluble antioxidant and an acceptable supplement in animal feed.

Similar to vitamin E, numerous terpenes of aromatic plants from the Labiatae family, such as thymol or carvacrol from thyme or oregano, have proven antioxidant properties. These phytogenic antioxidants not only contribute to the protection of dietary lipids against oxidative damages but are able to influence the lipid metabolism in animals.

In a study by Müller et al. (2012) in broilers, the intake of thyme oil or thymol had a positive effect on the production of the body's own antioxidative enzymes superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione peroxidase (GPx) as well as on the composition of polyunsaturated fatty acids in various tissues.

Thus, a study conducted by Zhang et al (2015) showed that supplementing fattening pigs with phytogenics can positively increase overall antioxidant capacity and GPx activity in muscle.

In addition, a reduced malonaldehyde content (MDA) in the muscle was observed at the same time. Since MDA is a by-product of lipid peroxidation, an increased antioxidative capacity can therefore be inferred indirectly.

This improved antioxidant status by phytogenics can increase meat quality. Meat shear forces, drip loss and cook loss were improved by the supplementation of PFA's (See Figure 2). These parameters represent the meat tenderness and indicate improved meat quality.

Another study conducted by Ranucci et al. (2014) showed that supplementation of grower-finisher diets with phytogenics significantly reduced carcass and meat oxidation and improved sensory properties compared to control.

In the group receiving phytogenics, it was determined that antioxidative enzyme activity (GPx and glutathione reductase) was higher in Longissimus lumborum while lipid oxidation was lower. As result of the improved antioxidative status, the meat from pigs that had been fed with PFA-supplemented diets received higher scores for color, taste and overall liking in both the blind and the labelled consumer tests.


3. Phytogenics stand for safe and sustainable pork production

On the one hand, the use of improved pig genetics for a higher growth rate and a higher proportion of lean meat has led to a deterioration in pig meat quality. On the other hand, the demand for tasty and high-quality meat products is constantly increasing.

In addition to high animal welfare standards, restaurant chains, food retailers and consumer brands are increasingly focusing on a value chain of meat that is as sustainable as possible, without the use of antibiotics. It is part of a paradigm shift in animal nutrition that is largely driven by consumer demand.

Today's consumers are increasingly demanding "clean labels" and food that is produced transparently. Meanwhile, pig producers are being urged to find solutions that support animal health and productivity without the use of antibiotics.

Consumer-driven market demands, coupled with antibiotic regulations that exclude the subtherapeutic use of medically important antibiotics to promote growth, are driving manufacturers to revise their nutrition strategies and test antibiotic-free production systems. When meat producers think about their options, phytogenics are increasingly used as natural performance enhancers.

The development of phytogenic feed additives consists of selecting active ingredients from nature and using their mode of action for a specific effect in animal nutrition. The composition of phytogenics ranges from known ingredients to exotic sources such as Quillaja (soap bark).

This process of selection and development requires considerable scientific knowledge and research. Starting from more than 100 different natural substances, the ingredients are precisely combined and formulated to create phytogenic solutions for the challenges of animal nutrition.

For example, bitter substances from gentian or hops help to increase the secretion of digestive juices and thus enhance the digestibility of proteins, whereas tannins and saponins can help to reduce ammonia emissions.

Thus, in addition to improving meat quality, phytogenics make a valuable contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the minimisation of nitrogen excretion and environmental pollution.



Phytogenics showed positive effects on feed intake, protein (muscle) deposition and reduction of fat oxidation, resulting in improved performance and meat quality. Phytogenic feed additives are thus an effective natural solution with high consumer acceptance for their safety and environmental sustainability.

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