Deli meat is a product that is quick and easy to grab for meals, snacks or party trays. It is a naturally low-fat product that many consider a great addition to a “healthy” lifestyle.
Unfortunately, typical deli meat contains some ingredients that can be damaging to one’s health, especially if consumed on a regular basis.
Deli meats have been linked to a variety of cancers, especially those affecting the digestive tract, in several studies.
This alone should cause one to question the consumption of deli meats, but why have they been linked to cancers?
Examining some of the ingredients and the process by which deli meats are made may provide some answers.
Carrageenan: used in reduced-fat foods as a fat replacement and to provide a specific “mouth-feel”
Citric acid: used as a preservative and/or a pH control agent
Corn syrup: sweetener derived from corn starch (most likely from GMO corn)
Caramel color: used to color meats—note that this is not considered an “artificial color” so it may still appear on a product that claims to have “no artificial colors” on the package
Gelatin: a form of animal-derived collagen (typically from bovines)
Modified food starch: a starch that is used as a thickener once it has been chemically modified; the source of the starch is not required to be listed
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): used as a flavor enhancer
Phosphates: used as a preservative; considered a “free” phosphate meaning it is readily absorbed in the body, as opposed to naturally occurring phosphates which have only 40-60% bioavailability; this study shows that consuming these phosphates could be fatal to those with kidney disease
Propyl gallate: an antioxidant used to prevent rancidity in rendered fats or pork sausage
Sodium nitrate: a preservative salt and color enhancer often added to jerky, bacon and lunchmeat
Sodium nitrite: a preservative salt and color enhancer similar to sodium nitrate but is also an antioxidant; typically used to cure ham and bacon
Dried whey: used as a binder or extender in meat products like sausage and stews
The Dangers of these Additives
While this list is an incomplete list of the ingredients added into deli meats, these are many of the most commonly used additives.
When reading what they do, it may be easy to think that they are beneficial, but the problem is that many of these ingredients either have not been studied intensely for their long-term effects on the human body or they have been studied and have been found to be harmful.
First, citric acid has been a common additive about which there has been much discussion. The fact that what is used as a food additive is not actually derived from citrus foods, but is instead derived from a type of mold known as Aspergillus Niger concerns many because of the dangers that mold can present to the body.
It is more economical to produce citric acid in this way, but unfortunately, it could mean contamination with mold spores which can negatively impact one’s health.
This study concluded that specific amounts of citric acid can have damaging effects on the organs and should be controlled for optimal health.
Corn syrup and sugar have been established as additives that should be consumed minimally, if ever. The effects of sweeteners on the body can have both short- and long-term consequences, and these consequences are compounded due to many processed foods, apart from deli meats, being sweetened with one, the other or both.
Sodium nitrates and nitrites are also frequently discussed when it comes to additives to avoid. These particular additives are not necessarily dangerous on their own, but they become a concern once ingested if and when they combine with dietary amines to produce what is called nitrosamines.
Nitrosamines have been shown to be carcinogenic. While there is a level of nitrates and nitrites that is deemed “safe” (since it is also naturally-occurring), the problem comes when one consumes large amounts of nitrates and/or nitrites that may be added to foods during processing.
In addition to the ingredients that are questionable, one specific disease tends to be more prevalent amongst deli meats.
Listeria monocytogenes is the most common disease found in packaged deli meats.
Even with the preservatives that are added in order to prevent the growth and spread of Listeria, deli meats are a notorious carrier of this harmful disease. Listeria can cause headaches, muscle aches, confusion, convulsions, loss of balance and fever, but it is most dangerous for pregnant women.
A pregnant woman who contracts Listeria may not have any symptoms or may only exhibit flu-like symptoms, but the danger is to the fetus.
Listeria can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery or infection in the newborn. It is for this reason that pregnant women are advised to eliminate deli meats while pregnant.
The process for making deli meats should also be considered. The more processed a meat is and the more machines it has to be fed through, the greater the risk of contamination with other products in the processing plant as well as increased risk for bacterial contamination. If the equipment being used is not cleaned correctly or regularly, this can
What are the alternatives and best options?
First, choose organic meats. This is one of the simpler routes to take since there are stricter guidelines for processing organic meats.
Keep in mind, however, that the more processed a food is, the more opportunity there is for contamination. If you buy organic meats, be sure to use them within a few days of purchase and to store the meat at the appropriate temperature in order to reduce the risk of bacterial growth.
Second, try to buy meat that is processed as little as possible. If you can buy from local, organic farmers who provide whole-cut pieces of meat, that would be the best option. Then you can cut your own meat into the thickness of your preference and store appropriately (use or freeze within a few days.
If you find yourself preferring to buy deli meats that are already packaged, look for organic meats without salt and nitrates/nitrites. Be sure to read the ingredient lists, and if you do not recognize an ingredient, look it up before purchasing! This is the best way to prevent buying meats that seem like healthier options but may have hidden and harmful ingredients.
Speaking of brands that claim to be “healthy”…
Some have wondered about certain brands that are more expensive and make claims to be healthier than the other deli meats on the shelf. Are they actually healthier? What are the ingredients? How are they processed?
This is one of the most popular brands that is quickly considered healthier than the rest.
On some of their signs, they claim “No Fillers, No By-products, No Artificial Colors or Flavors, No Trans Fat, No Gluten”, but what do these claims really mean?
On the surface, they seem like great claims, but when you examine each statement, you find that they are somewhat deceptive.
“No Fillers”—the meats do not contain the cheap substances that are used in other processed meats to hold the meats together (i.e. carrageenan, soy concentrate, starches, etc.).
“No By-products”—their meats do not contain unusual (to the Western diet) animal parts like the lips, tripe, stomachs and hearts. This is great, except that several other well-known brands also make these claims.
“No Artificial Colors” — these colors include the FD&C certified colors like Blue #1, Blue #2, Green #3, Red #3, Red #40, Yellow #5 and Yellow #6. This is a moot point, however, since no other deli meats contain these colors either. Because caramel color is not included as an “artificial color”, it can still be used even with this claim, so be sure to look at the ingredients for this.
“No Artificial Flavors”—again, this is a misleading claim because while no “artificial” flavors may be used, “natural” flavors can be used which are very similar to artificial flavors…they are not truly natural.
“No Trans Fat”—this statement references the use of partially hydrogenated oils and are not typically used in the processing of deli meats; note that trans fats also naturally occur in some foods like meat, so claiming to have NO trans fats may not be entirely accurate depending on the type of Boar’s Head meat you buy.
“No Gluten”—meat does not naturally contain gluten so making this claim is only useful for recognizing that the factory in which the meat was processed did not also process other products that would contain gluten. In other words, there was no possibility for cross-contamination.
If you contact your local grocery store that sells Boar’s Head products and ask for an ingredient list, you will find that the ingredients are not much different from many of the other store-bought brands. Be sure to do your research if you want to obtain the healthiest meats!
Louis Rich turkey variety pack
Another brand that many turn to is Louis Rich. Specifically, the turkey variety pack (smoked white turkey, smoked turkey ham, turkey bologna and turkey cotto salami) has some interesting (read “questionable”) ingredients.
These include modified corn starch, sugar, sodium phosphates, sodium nitrite, “flavor” (what is that?!), corn syrup and dextrose. The problems with many of these has already been discussed so let’s just say that this variety pack should not be given a second thought if you are interested in finding healthy deli meats.
Some deli meat brands that have been shown to contain better ingredients include Applegate Farms, Organic Praire, Nuna Naturals and Kol Foods Oven Roasted Turkey and Simple Truth meats.
No matter what, make sure you READ THE INGREDIENT LIST before choosing!
In fact, there are more than thousands of toxic chemicals in many of the food and products you eat or use every day and they can increase your cancer risk dramatically.
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