Ask the Nutritionist
Q: What exactly does nitrate-free mean and are these products safe?
Theresa, Newburyport, Massachusetts
A: Processed meats, including ham, bacon, and hot dogs, are cured with salt for preservation. It is actually the nitrate present in salt that is responsible for the flavor and color that we see in cured meats. However, the nitrate is transformed to nitrite during the meat processing, so it is sodium nitrite that you find in processed meats today.
There is presently no research stating that sodium nitrite in food is not safe. However, research has found an association between processed meat intake, as a symptom of an overall dietary pattern, and various types of cancer, including prostate and colorectal. These studies however focus on how diet and lifestyle effect disease development — they in no way prove that eating any one type of food causes or prevents cancer.
Organic lunchmeats do not contain synthetic sodium nitrite. They do, however, contain nitrites which are derived from celery powder and sea salt used in the curing process. If your goal is to avoid the use of synthetic products, then an organic lunchmeat would be a good solution. However do not be fooled into thinking they do not also contain sodium nitrite.
At the end of the day, a processed meat is a processed meat. Processed meats are generally high in fat and sodium, and therefore should be eaten in moderation no matter whether you choose organic or not. Rather than focus on finding "nitrate-free" products, consider trying some of these options:
Other lunch bag sandwich staples to try:
- Almond butter and fruit preserves
- Hummus and veggies (try roasted veggies for a different flavor and texture)
- Roasted chicken and avocado (you can buy a whole rotisserie chicken at the grocery store for convenience)