Lunch meat refers to any type of sliced meat, usually sold at the deli counter in the grocery store or in the refrigerated meat case in presliced packages. Also known as cold cuts, lunch meat is inexpensive and an easy-to-prepare lunchbox meal. Sodium nitrate, a type of salt, is added to cold cuts to stabilize the colors. Sodium nitrite, a known carcinogen, is a chemical compound derived from nitrates that prevents the growth of the dangerous toxin botulism.
Without added sodium nitrate in deli meats, your food will be gray rather than a healthy pink or red and will have a shorter shelf life and a less smoky -- or cured -- flavor. Nitrates are converted into nitrites when they come into contact with certain types of bacteria. “Nitrates and nitrites are naturally occurring compounds that are created when plants break down during photosynthesis,” according to lunch meat producer Applegate Farms. Nitrates are added to meat products including salami, bologna and ham.
No Nitrites or Nitrates Added
“No nitrites or nitrates added” is a label you will find on products that were not cured based on guidelines put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is, however, a misnomer. Lunch meats with this label can in fact contain the preservative nitrates. The USDA requires that meats prepared without synthetic sodium nitrate carry this label. Meats that are cured with organic nitrates, those made from celery juice and sea salts, must still have this label.
Nitrates can introduce a small risk of developing cancer and, as such, there are legal limits to the amount manufacturers can add to foods, according to a report in the July 2009 issue of “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” While nitrates make cold cuts safe for us to eat, there is a very real caveat. The National Institutes of Health reports that in countries where people eat a lot of salt-cured foods, rates of esophagus and stomach cancers are higher. The preservatives in processed meat also cause other chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
If you’d rather not take your chances with factory-processed nitrates, you can opt for meats that use organic compounds. Look for organic and natural lunch meats with no nitrates added in your local health food speciality store. Alternatively, cook fresh meat at home to eliminate your intake of processed meats altogether. Bake lean turkey or chicken breasts, and and then slice thin for use in sandwiches and wraps. Freeze any leftovers to prolong their shelf life.
- Applegate Farms: Nitrate Free and Nitrite Free
- American Meat Institute Fact Sheet; Sodium Nitrite: The Facts; November 2008
- “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition”; Nitrate in Foods: Harmful or Healthy?; Martijn B. Katan; July 2009
- Bureau of Environmental Health; Nitrates and Nitrites; November 2006
- MedlinePlus: Diet and Disease
- ABC World News: Processed Meats May Pose Heart Health Risk; May 2010
- Harvard School of Public Health: Eating Processed Meats, but not Unprocessed Red Meats, May Raise Risk of Heart Disease and Diabetes