Aristotle might have taught that nature abhors a vacuum, but meat loves it! Candidly, these two ideas of vacuum are not quite the same. On the one hand, we have the idea that a perfect vacuum, a space that is completely void of matter, cannot exist in nature; on the other is the concept of packaging meat and other foods within a package where the air has been vacated, and the container sealed.
Yet it remains true; meat loves a vacuum.
When meat and other food products are packaged in a vacuum, they last longer. Meat experiences less weightloss, maintains its natural color longer, stays safer, and ages better when packaged in a vacuum. The reason for this, as it will be evident, is that vacuum sealing protects foods from microorganisms and other elements that would otherwise contribute to food spoilage.
For this to work, the correct vacuum system must be used, with good quality film or vacuum bags that are strong enough to resist tears and punctures. They must also be able to hold the seal and keep moisture and oxygen out. And above all, everything must be kept clean.
To avoid food from spoilage, measures must be taken to protect the food. Throughout history, humanity has tried and developed different types of methods for preserving food. Some of the breakthroughs have been sun drying, curing, refrigeration, canning, dehydration, and vacuum packaging, to name a few. Of these, vacuum packaging is a relatively modern method entering the food preservation scene around the midpoint of the 20th century.
Food spoils when microorganisms are allowed to grow on it; or when enzymes are not controlled, and the food ripens too fast; or when oxidation takes place; or when food is exposed to light; or when rodents, insects, and parasites attack it; or when it suffers physical damage; or when it is exposed to extreme temperatures; or when time allows nature to run its course.
Vacuum packaging can help protect food from some of the things mentioned above by creating a barrier that keeps microorganisms, contaminants, and pests away. Vacuum packaging also makes it easier to keep food at the optimal temperature since the packaging allows for easier storage after the food is cut down or separated into smaller individual packages. It must be kept in mind that even though the meat or food item is vacuum sealed, it must be kept at adequate temperatures for safe storage. All of this allows the food more time to make it to its destination in a contaminant-free way, and it allows for it to be stored for a more extended period of time.
Another meaningful way that vacuum packaging helps preserve food is by protecting it from the effects of oxidation. When air comes in contact with food, it can cause oxidation. Oxidation is a rather complex process, but it boils down to when myoglobin and lipids, the elements that dictate color, quality, flavor, and nutrition in meat, lose one or more electrons. Oxidation can cause the fat in meats to turn rancid and change colors from bright cherry-red to dull gray.
You might have noticed that we have not answered whether vacuum-sealed food has double the shelf life. Most sources show that, as long as the other things are taken into account like temperature and cleanliness during preparation, vacuumed packaged meats can more than double shelf-life; for example, according to FoodSfety.gov “frozen foods stored continuously at 0 °F or below can be kept indefinitely”. Now, we must keep in mind that there is no guarantee on the quality of meat kept indefinitely which is why the recommended storage time, for maintaining food texture and flavor, is 1 to 2 months for bacon and sausage, 3 to 4 months for hamburger and ground beef, and 4 to 12 months for steak, roast, and chops.
According to most charts though, including the one found in The Best Vacuum Sealers of 2021 – Reviews by Your Best Digs, vacuumed sealed food well exceeds the doubling of shelf life of refrigerated food, especially when frozen.
In an article published by MeatScience.org, Comparison of Modified Atmosphere Versus Vacuum Packaging to Extend the Shelf Life of Retail Fresh Meat Cuts, it is concluded that meat packaged in a modified atmosphere package with a mixture of 80% oxygen and 20% carbon dioxide has a shelf life of 4 to 6 days. At the same time, meat vacuum sealed has a 1 to 3 weeks shelf life when kept at the same temperature. This article shows that even when the meat packages are not frozen, the vacuumed package more than doubles the shelf life of the meat that is not vacuum sealed. Keeping in mind that using modified atmosphere packages is a widespread and advantageous packaging solution, and vacuum sealing wins hands down when it comes to extending shelf life.
As mentioned above, there are other factors to consider when choosing packaging materials and packaging methods. For example, packaging meat in the modified atmosphere package with an 80% oxygen and 20% carbon dioxide mixture, produces a product that shows that bright cherry-red color in meat that is associated with freshness and quality. While packaging meats in vacuum-sealed packages shows the deeper purple-red color of freshly cut meat that customers may not be used to seeing; therefore, additional efforts might be necessary to educate the consumer of the difference between the two methods.
In review, there are different ways to package food products. We have seen that while vacuum sealing can more than double shelf life there might be some limitations with the quality of flavor and texture if the meat is frozen indefinitely. Compared to other packaging methods, vacuum packaging is the best method of doubling the shelf life of meat and other food products; meat loves a vacuum.