Lunch Meat Dilema

Lunch Meat Dilema

by Kristin Evenrud, Grocery Manager and Nate Furler, Marketing Specialist

As a parent of three boys, I struggle with what to make for lunch and supper.  They typically don’t appreciate the occasional “fancy” meals that I slave over, and they often complain about the “healthy” meals I am most proud of.  But, they love a simple sliced-meat sandwich.  So what’s a mother to do?

One option is to buy a package of “conventional” sliced ham or turkey which is usually loaded with added nitrates and nitrites. In addition, these animals are often raised in confinement, fed genetically modified (GM) grain, given antibiotics and forced to eat and sleep in their own excrement.  More often than not, animals raised for commercial cured lunch meats are from a feedlot.  This is precisely not the kind of food I like to put in my kids’ tummies.

In addition to the practices of raising the animals, let’s look more specifically at nitrates and nitrites.  What are they and why are they being added to our foods, especially cured lunch meats.

Both sodium nitrate (NaNO3) and sodium nitrite (NaNO2) are naturally occurring substances.  In their chemical state, they are both a granular salt-like substance with a somewhat off-white color.  Sodium nitrate is also commonly used in the production of gunpowder, explosives, and chemical fertilizers.  Sodium nitrite in particular received acclaim for its prevention of the formation of botulism, and therefore, its use as a food preservative, flavor enhancer and color retainer was born.

Sodium nitrate is an oxidizing agent. When it’s combined with the correct chemical, the resulting compound is sodium nitrite.  The human stomach and gastrointestinal tract present ideal conditions for this conversion.  Furthermore, with the addition of nitrogen-containing compounds called secondary amines (highly present in meat), nitrosamines are formed.  Nitrosamines happen to be a known animal carcinogen and suspected human carcinogen.

Sodium nitrite exists naturally in vegetables such as spinach and lettuce.  However, concern has been raised about the consumption of large amounts of these chemicals due to their addition to cured meats.  Today, most sodium nitrite that is added to meat is commercially produced.  Some studies have been stated to document increased developments of Alzheimer’s, diabetes mellitus, and Parkinson’s due to higher nitrosamine levels.  Studies have also shown that increased levels of nitrosamines can lead to a condition called methemoglobinemia, where hemoglobin is oxidized to methemoglobin and loses its ability to transport oxygen.  This is particularly dangerous in the case of infants as their systems are less able to handle the amounts of produced nitrosamines.  This may be due to a number of reasons, such as their higher gastric pH levels which prevent the rapid degradation of nitrites in their system, and/or less concentrations of oxidation agents such as vitamin C.

It was discovered that the antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin E dramatically reduce the formation of nitrosamines when ingested along with nitrates and nitrites.  Within the past two decades, additives such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to meats have led to a dramatic drop in the formation of nitrosamines from food and beverage consumption.

Of course, there are still drawbacks to all-natural lunch meats.  People should watch their intake of any one type of food, especially one that has been processed.  Even though these all-natural lunch meats have been minimally processed, they were still run through a machine and something was added to them.

I have decided the better choice for my family when deciding to have lunch-meat sandwiches for supper is humanely-raised, antibiotic-free, minimally processed sliced meats that are free of chemical preservatives.  At the OCC we carry a variety of sliced lunch meats that are “uncured,” meaning manufacturers use either sea salt, sodium lactate (from beets), or celery salt to preserve the meat.

Things to note:

• Watch sodium levels as salts are used to prolong shelf life.

• Minimally processed lunch meat should be consumed within 3 days of the package being opened.

• Most sliced lunch meats at the OCC are gluten, soy and casein free (as always read the labels)

• Applegate lunch meats have a “promise tracker” that allows you to visit their website, enter the package UPC and learn more about the product you purchased – such as where the meat was raised.

• Lunch meats are often very lean or even Fat Free