You may have noticed “preservative-free”, “all-natural” or “no nitrates added” lunch meat in the grocery store lately. These meat products contain celery powder or celery juice and are becoming increasing popular due to research studies that link a high intake of processed meats with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. But are these products as healthy as they sound?
Many processed meats, such as lunch meat, ham and salami, typically contain a preservative called sodium nitrate that gives them a pink color, enhances their flavor and protects them from spoilage.
Because celery is a naturally occurring source of nitrates, it can be called preservative free. But there is no difference between sodium nitrates and plant-based nitrates; they contain the same molecules. To help prevent the formation of nitrosamines, a chemical that may cause damage to DNA that could possibly lead to cancer, companies add antioxidants such as vitamin C or sodium erythorbate to cured products.
Other fruits and vegetables are natural sources of nitrates, but also contain antioxidants that prevent the formation of nitrosamines.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), “studies show that compared to eating no processed meat, eating 3.5 ounces every day — a large hot dog — increases colorectal cancer risk by 36 percent.” To reduce cancer risk, AICR suggests avoiding processed meats. Processed meats can also pose additional health risks, as many are high in fat and salt.
To keep yourself healthy, your best option is avoid packaged meats, and buy fresh meats such as chicken, turkey or fish. Also consider trying other sources of protein, including dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, whole grains or legumes to help meet your protein needs.