There are some good reasons to give up deli meat, but the nitrates added to increase its shelf life may not be one of them.
In the 1970s, nitrates were linked to cancer, but recent studies do not show a link, said Rebecca Richards, registered dietitian and nutrition instructor at Weber State University and Stevens Henager College in Ogden.
Nitrates can cause cancer in a “rat gut,” said Joan Thompson, associate professor of nutrition at Weber State University. But studies today show any cancer risk in deli meat comes from the carcinogens in smoked meat and the saturated fat in animal products, she said.
Still, Rod Hansen, also an associate professor of nutrition at Weber State University, would rather err on the side of caution.
Protein and nitrate create nitrosamines in the gastrointestinal tract, he said — and nitrosamines have caused cancer in lab animals.
“It hasn’t been completely addressed,” he said. “Do you want meat that is fresh or do you take a chance? It may be bad, it may not be. It’s not too definitive.”
Thompson said nitrates are antimicrobial, and a “great bug killer” that extend the shelf life of food and prevent food-borne illness.
In the 1800s, people died from what they called “sausage poisoning,” until they discovered that no one got ill when sea salt was added to the meat, said Brian Numer, who works with the Utah State University Extension.
Nitrate, Numer says, is in sea salt and is used today to keep bacteria from growing in refrigeration for long periods of time.
Nitrates give prepared meats like hot dogs and bologna their characteristic pink color and inhibit the growth of bacteria, explained Gale Rudolph, an adjunct professor of food science at the University of Utah.
“Nitrates have been around for centuries,” Rudolph said. “The biggest problem (with meat that has not been treated with nitrates) is botulism. I would not want a long, slow death or a quick death by botulism.”
Richards adds that most people don’t know they would have to cut a lot more than deli meat to get rid of nitrates.
“Less than five percent of nitrate intake comes from cured meat. Plants naturally have nitrates. Saliva produces nitrates, so you’d have to stop swallowing,” she said.
And even Hansen thinks there can be a place for deli meat when eating fresh is impractical.
“I would eat nitrate-treated meat, but in moderation. You may want deli meat on a picnic, but could eat fresh at home,” he said.
Although nitrates may do more help than harm in deli meat, there are other health concerns.
For starters, deli meat has been linked to listeriosis in unborn fetuses. A document on the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s website, www.acog.org, indicates that hot dogs and deli meats are among the products that can cause sporadic neonatal disease and early-onset neonatal infections.
“To prevent pregnancy-related listeria infections, pregnant women are advised to not eat hot dogs or luncheon meats unless they are steaming hot,” the document said.
Other potential problems, such as the excess of fat or sodium, apply to everyone.
You can’t expect to get less nitrate, sodium or fat by getting your meat cut from a deli instead of buying it in a package.
“Across the board, there are high- and low-fat products in both sections,” Richards said. “All deli meat has nitrates and sodium. Personally, for cost and food safety, I prefer prepackaged. It’s more hygienic. The plants have had food-safety training and have to pass tests. I think it’s safer to buy in a package.”
Thompson said it is important to limit sodium because a diet high in salt is not good for your blood pressure.
“Deli meat is so processed,” Hansen adds. “It’s high in sodium. A rule of thumb is that the more processed, the more salt. For those with high blood pressure, deli meat is a concern and a rule of thumb overall is to stay away from processed stuff.”