From ham and swiss to pastrami on rye, cold cuts are a lunchtime staple.
Processed or cured meats, which include ham, salami, bologna, roast beef and even sausages and hot dogs, are cheap and convenient, but might be better consumed as an occasional treat rather than a daily meal. In 2007, the American Institute for Cancer Research released a report that showed consuming 3.5 ounces of processed meat daily increases chances of colorectal cancer by 21 per cent. The Canadian Cancer Society also warns against eating processed meats on their website.
The addition of nitrite, a necessary preservative, is what makes processed meat potentially harmful. According to Levente Diosady, a food engineering professor at the University of Toronto, nitrites have always been used in the curing process.
“[Nitrite] provides the pink meat colour, it’s an antioxidant—it prevents the meat from going rancid—it helps develop the cured meat flavour, and the most important function is to prevent the growth of microorganisms, especially botulism, the most deadly of all food poisonings,” he explains.
In the 1970s, the study of nitrites in meat products concluded in the search for an alternative preservative, but Diosady says even as of now it’s the safest option. While nitrites in meat are strictly regulated by Health Canada, there are still concerns.
“If nitrite is heated at a high temperature, for example if you burn bacon, some of the nitrites can be converted to nitrosamines, and they’re known carcinogens,” Diosady says. These carcinogenic compounds can also form when nitrites combine with chemicals in the stomach.
As the public’s awareness of nitrites grows, companies are coming out with products that claim to be healthier and nitrite-free. Maple Leaf Foods advertises their Natural Selections meats as free of preservatives and artificial ingredients. However, they contain cultured celery extract, an ingredient that’s not as healthy as its name might indicate.
“Celery contains a high amount of nitrate, and they add an enzyme that converts it to nitrite. They’re using this to get around the label—they’re getting exactly the same effect by adding enzymes or bits of celery,” Diosady explains.
The average consumer wouldn’t know this by reading the ingredient list on these products.
“They have their own ‘food-industry speak’ and I’m going to say it’s not understood by most Canadians—they see it as gobbledygook because they see a bunch of technical terms,” Len Piche, a professor of nutritional sciences at Brescia University College, says. He also takes issue with the use of the label “natural.”
“Turns out a lot of [companies] don’t use the term ‘natural’ properly on their foods,” Piche says. “Natural isn’t one of the terms that’s as closely guarded as low-fat and some of the other terms.”
In fact, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s guide to good labelling and advertising says, “Advertisements should not convey the impression that “nature” has, by some miraculous process, made some foods nutritionally superior to others.”
But in the food advertising industry, marketing products as superior is necessary to get consumers to buy them. With so many products claiming to be “natural,” it’s hard to know what to trust.
“They don’t lie, but they don’t tell the truth either, and in the long run it results in a public feeling that the food companies are unreliable,” Diosady says.
Staying away from processed and pre-packaged meats is a healthier alternative, especially since they’re also high in sodium. Four slices of Maple Leaf’s Natural Selections ham contains 570 mg of sodium—Health Canada recommends consuming only 1,000-1,500 mg per day.
Noelle Martin, registered dietician for the University Students’ Council, suggests eggs, beans, nuts and seeds as substitutes for lunch meat that are high in protein. There are also soy-based and organic deli meats that are nitrite-free and can satisfy a cold cut craving. A little preparation can be cheaper and healthier too.
“It’s worthwhile to cook a few chicken breasts and then slice it and freeze it in portions for sandwiches,” Martin says.
This may take extra time and effort, but cutting back on cold cuts may be worth it in the long run.