What is in your deli meat?
Why we like deli meat:
It is an inexpensive, convenient, and calorie efficient source of protein. Ham, turkey, roast beef, or whatever your preferred flavor, it's yummy between two slices of bread, stuffed in a pita, chopped over a salad, or my personal favorite, wrapped around a pickle.
No matter the mode of transportation to your mouth, a few slices offer a quick protein hit. A 4 oz portion of turkey (about 4-5 slices) offers 24 grams protein for its 120 calories-pure protein! Other good stuff includes trace levels of selenium and the B vitamins, niacin and B6. Maybe this is why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.
Ugh! A serving size yields nearly 30% of the RDA of sodium!! And like all food products, deli meat varies in form, flavor, and most important, processing.
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Does your deli meat contain sodium nitrites? Do you know what these pesky add-ons are? Have you noticed packaging touting "Nitrite-Free"?
First, a definition: Both sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are chemical substances; read unnatural. Nitrates were first used to prevent bacteria growth (conditions such as botulism) as well as to cure and preserve meat. A nitrite is what forms when a nitrate breaks down, and once it was understood that it was the nitrites that gave meat its appealing pink color, nitrites became the favored preservative.
So why are they used? To prevent bacteria growth, preserve the meat, and provide that pleasant pink color.
But are nitrites necessary? No. Because you can buy meat that is free of this chemical, it's clearly unnecessary. Many meat suppliers argue that bacteria can be avoided by cleanliness of the processing facility, proper temperature controls, and natural additives derived from beets or corn.
Are nitrites really that bad? Depends on how you define "bad". Consuming large amounts of nitrites can be lethal, but it's unclear just how harmful nitrite consumption is when consumed as part of a normal diet. The lethal dose is 22 mg per kg of body weight (mg/kg = parts per million) and the maximum allowed in any meat product is 200 ppm. So a 150 lb human = 68 kg = 1,496 mg/kg or 1,496 ppm---which is a FAR cry from 200 ppm.
So why worry? Well, research has demonstrated that sodium nitrite can be harmful in the digestion process. Nitrites are known to combine with "amines", a byproduct of protein digestion, and form nitrosamines (sometimes referred to as N-nitroso compounds), which are a known carcinogen. It's the nitrosamines that have been shown to cause cancer such as stomach cancer. Consider this, (from a USA Today article), "Every 1.7 ounces of processed meat consumed a day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 21%." The plot thickens with cooking. Nitrites can react with certain byproducts of cooking to become carcinogenic as well.
So why not ban nitrites? Because they do help ensure food safety and the research is not definitive for smaller consumption amounts. The USDA, however, also recommends that anti-oxidants be added to meat products to prevent the formation of nitrosamines. So if you're craving that hot dog or other processed meat, consider having a piece of fruit or another food that is rich in vitamin E or C.
Get to the point already!!! Okay, sure, while it may not be entirely clear how "bad" nitrites are, they clearly are NOT good. There is general agreement that nitrosamines are potent animal carcinogens and are likely to be human carcinogens as well. Even reports that argue that nitrites in cured meat are not a major risk, also add that an alternative to them should be found.
So avoid them. It's not hard. Skip hot dogs altogether and look for deli meats that advertise "NO Nitrites." I've tried several brands and the clear winner is Diestel. Trader Joe's sells nitrite free turkey and Applegate Farms is also a well-known brand, but if you have a choice, opt for Diestel. The texture and flavor wins over these two others. I particularly like the smoked turkey breast and the turkey pastrami. But be careful because nitrite free deli meat will not last as long in your fridge. Diestel's website says unopened you can store it 30 days. Once opened they recommend finishing it off within 3 days-well I can tell you I've exceeded that by 100% and have had no ill effects-
What about when I'm on the road? Well, unfortunately the big fast food boys (Subway, Quiznos, etc.) do not offer nitrite free meats, but specialty delis and some athletic-minded quick serve joints (such as b.good in the Boston area -- which we recommend on the site) do offer the good stuff. Of course Whole Foods and other natural food markets will also cover this base--which is why we identify markets in our Eat Well coverage for each city.