When the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a part of the World Health Organization, evaluated the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat, they also evaluated processed meat. Just how did they define “processed meat?” A meat that has been modified from its natural state either “through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.”
Along with sausages, hot dogs, ham, corned beef, beef jerky, canned meat, meat sauces, and bacon, guess what lunchtime favorite appeared on that list? Deli meats! So what’s the deal with deli meats? Are they really so bad that you need to find an alternative for your brown bag lunch? Or can you enjoy them in a pinch (or more often)?
Are Deli Meats Bad for You?
In its review, the International Agency for Research on Cancer discussed two primary concerns about deli meats: their nutritional value and the ingredients used to cure the meats. Nutritionally, some deli meats contain excessive amounts of sodium and saturated fats. In addition, some of the ingredients used to cure deli meats are known or suspected carcinogens. . For example, while synthetic nitrates and nitrates inhibit rotting, keeping cold cuts fresh and flavorful, they are also suspected to increase the risk for colorectal cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. While it hasn’t been proven as a direct cause, it’s smart to limit your intake of nitrates and nitrites.
What to Look for When Buying Deli Meats
Despite some of the scary things you read about, you don’t have to skip out on deli meats altogether, as long as you choose deli meats wisely and eat them sparingly. When you’re buying deli meats, consider leaner alternatives to salamis, bolognas, and other high-fat meats. Turkey and chicken are leaner, healthier options because they tend to be less processed than other deli meats and may contain less salt and preservatives as a result.
Another trick is to look for “naturally occurring nitrates.” These nitrates don’t offer the same risk as traditionally cured deli meats and instead rely on things like celery to act as a preservative.
What to Avoid When Buying Deli Meats
Much of the health hazards associated with buying deli meats are due to the ingredients used for curing, processing, and preserving. Read labels carefully and avoid buying packages that include the following.
- Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are preservatives linked to cancer and other potential unwanted health conditions.
- Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a widely used synthetic antioxidant in foods, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals mainly to preserve fats and oils; considered a potential human carcinogen.
- Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is used as an antioxidant food additive; considered a potential human carcinogen.
- Smoked/natural smoke/smoke flavor is ambiguous labeling and may include ingredients that are considered toxic.
- Corn syrup is glucose heavy. Too much sugar can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and other issues.
- Excess sodium raises blood pressure.
- High levels of saturated fat are not heart healthy.
Like other convenience foods, deli meats should be enjoyed on a limited basis, and be sure to read labels carefully.