I like the simplicity of a turkey sandwich. In two minutes flat, I can slap some deli turkey on bread, slather on some mustard and lunch is born. Unfortunately, deli turkey is highly processed and loaded with preservatives, so I tend to avoid it. New versions of deli meats have hit the market that are suggestively healthier with the promise of no added nitrates and are labeled “100% Natural“. Are these deli meats really healthier?
Why processed deli meat is bad for you
I will try not to get too science-nerdy on you, but bear with me here. In a nutshell, processed deli meats may be carcinogenic if they contain nitrosamines. Processed deli meats can contain nitrosamines due to the sodium nitrite that is often added as a preservative.
This is likely why regular consumption of deli meat has been proven to increase your risk of contracting colorectal cancer, leukemia, stomach cancer and ovarian cancer. You don’t even need to eat that much of the stuff according to Denise Snyder, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, a Duke nutrition researcher with an emphasis in cancer survivorship. Denise says that “eating 3.5 ounces of processed meat every day (24.5 ounces per week) increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 36% when compared to someone who eats no processed meat“. (Source: DukeHealth.org).
If that isn’t enough, the World Cancer Research Fund recommends eating “very little, if any, processed meat”. All of this evidence against the health of deli meat is astounding to me! Yet, people still consume it every day.
Is there a healthy alternative?
One brand that caught my eye is Hormel’s Natural Choice Oven Roasted Deli Turkey, which Hormel claims is preserved without added nitrates*. Hormel contends that they exclusively preserve the turkey with high pressure processing (HPP). The HPP process applies so much extreme pressure to the packaged meat that all potential pathogens (bacteria) burst and die.
While this is not really what I consider a natural process, I don’t think it is dangerous to consume deli meat processed by HPP. The primary criticism I have of Hormel’s deli meat is that it is labeled as “All Natural” with “No Added Nitrates”, yet it contains celery juice powder.
I know what you are thinking. What could be wrong with celery juice powder?
Celery juice powder – THE NATURAL NITRATE
Celery is naturally high in nitrates, and can be used as a preservative to achieve the same effects as added sodium nitrate. Hormel can label their deli turkey as having “No Added Nitrates – except for those naturally occurring” because celery juice powder is a plant-based ingredient, and not specifically sodium nitrate as an additive.
Now let’s add in some Lactic Acid Starter Culture
Also listed on the ingredient label is “Lactic Acid Starter Culture”. As reported in the New York Times, a bacterial culture is used to convert the naturally present sodium nitrate in celery juice powder into sodium nitrite. Ta-da! This means that Hormel’s turkey with “no added nitrates*” may contain sodium nitrite. In fact, it’s possible that it contains 10 times more nitrites than traditional deli meats according to a study done on nitrate-free hot dogs published in the Journal of Food Protection. As I discussed above, those nitrites have been known to convert into cancer-promoting nitrosamines and wreck havoc on your body. Further information was found over at PreparedFoods.com:
To naturally cure meat, two components are required. The first is a naturally occurring nitrate source that is found in many plants and vegetable juices. The second component is select microorganisms capable of reducing nitrate to nitrite within normal meat processing steps. Toward this end, for example, brine for a whole-muscle meat could be composed of ingredients such as sea salt, turbinado sugar, spices, natural flavoring (celery juice powder, which is also a source of natural nitrates) and a lactic acid starter culture to reduce the nitrate to nitrite.....nitrate-providing celery powder is available specifically for this use - PreparedFoods.com
Is there a more “Natural Choice”?
Applegate Farms states that their products have very low amounts of naturally occurring nitrates (less than 40 parts per million) and that their deli meats typically have the lowest levels. It is also organic, whereas Hormel’s deli meat is not. While I believe that Applegate’s deli meat is a better choice, I see that their deli turkey contains carrageenan (note: their deli roast beef does not).
This is why I stick with unprocessed organic chicken and turkey to make my sandwiches. I cook and slice it myself. While it may not taste anything like deli meat, I think it is the only “Natural Choice”.
Try my recipe for a Subway-style honey mustard chicken sandwich! It is so good.
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