What About Processed Meats?

The Quick Answer:  Preserved meats must contain nitrites to protect against pathogens like botulism.  Minimize your intake to reduce your health risk; avoid them if you’re pregnant, diabetic, hypertensive, or have a familial cancer risk.


At a certain age, you begin to think about writing your life story, or at least a memoir to preserve a few treasured memories.  My favorite moments revolve around the beautiful wife and our slightly above average kids, but backpacking trips into the Sierras would also be included.  I have wonderful memories of being high in the mountains with friends, living very simply off what we could carry on our backs. The picture above was painted by my backpacking buddy, Doug Phelps, as good a man as you could hope to know.  I post it as a memorial to his untimely death from cancer.

This morning I remembered camping by an alpine lake so pretty words couldn’t do it justice.  We had used a pack animal so had the luxury of foods not normally carried, like the cured ham we had for dinner.  The next morning we didn’t want to leave this Garden of Eden, but there was more to see so we set out, climbing a ridge with many switchbacks.  I was unusually short of breath on the ascent, panting, almost asthmatic, and began to wonder what might be wrong.  Years later, I may have learned the reason, thanks to a question asked by Greg, a reader of this blog.

Greg asked about processed meats, wanting to know what makes them even unhealthier than regular meat.  This led to a study of how meat is cured, a practice with ancient origins.  Though salt, sugar, and smoking all play a part in the preservation of meats there is one essential ingredient: nitrite.  Whether added as nitrate (which becomes nitrite) or more directly, nitrite performs an essential service—it stops the growth of pathogens like C. botulinum, Staph. aureus, and the listeria species.  Without nitrite, we would be limited to the short shelf life of refrigerated meats and miss the smell of bacon cooking on Saturday mornings. 

Nitrite is a toxin, a few grams taken directly can be fatal.  In the ‘70s it was theorized that nitrites caused cancer when the body converted them to nitrosamines.   The role of nitrites in cancer has not been proven—this is typical of carcinogens, the actual process is complex and remains unproved—but there is strong evidence nitrites are a risk factor.  A recent post noted studies linking processed meats to a higher risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes.  Other studies add stomach cancer, childhood leukemia, brain cancer, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  Add to that a role in hypertension, and diabetes. 

I learned that nitrite also has short-term effects: it destroys red blood cells, and can cause headaches, and asthma-like breathing difficulties (though sensitivity varies among people).  When I read about the latter, I remembered my prior trouble breathing when backpacking.  Climbing high in the Sierras with a heavy backpack is a critical challenge of respiratory capacity and what seemed like asthma had followed a big ham dinner the night before.  Backpackers take note:  hold the preserved meats before difficult climbs.

Naturally Cured Meats

Because nitrite in preserved meats is a concern, some meat products are advertised as nitrate free, or “naturally preserved”, a condition for “organic” labeling.  Do organic meats actually have less nitrites?  Probably not, the nitrites are just added by different means.  Nitrates and nitrites are common to all plants—this is logical, as the air we breathe is 78% nitrogen and nitrogen is involved in biological processes.  So you can cure meat by using nitrates found in plants like celery; it’s trickery, but this form of nitrite is slipped into the ingredient list as celery powder, or simple hidden under natural flavors.

A 2009 study out of Texas A & M compared meat around the country, both conventionally and naturally (or organically) cured.  The curing method made little difference—for all types of processed meats the levels of nitrates and nitrites averaged 37.1 and 4.5 ppm (parts per million) respectively, well below the FDA maximum of 200 ppm.  If meat has a lower nitrite level, it likely has a higher sodium level (salt helps inhibit pathogens too) so you trade one problem for another. 

Here are a few other additives commonly found in preserved meats:

•   Sodium polyphosphates improve slicing and reduce spattering. 

•   Sodium lactate is a wide-spectrum antimicrobial. 

•   Sodium diacetate controls mold and buffers pH.

A Good Story

I like the way tradition has been helped by science here.  Meat had been cured forever using salt.  Ancient salts, less refined, included nitrates/nitrites.  How?  Plants receive nitrogen from the air; when plants decompose the nitrogen is transformed to nitrates (saltpeter, one of many forms, is potassium nitrate); bacterial action converts nitrates to nitrites, and all these find their way into streams and rivers and eventually the seas.  So ancient sea salts used to preserve meat contained nitrates and nitrites. 

As food was industrialized, and the role of nitrite understood, manufactured nitrates/nitrites were added without adequate limits.  The FDA resolved this in 1926 by setting the 200 ppm limit.  In the 1970s the role of nitrosamines in cancer was discovered.  Separately, it was discovered that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) enhanced the effectiveness of nitrites in killing pathogens.  So in 1973 the bacon limit for nitrite was reduced if a form of ascorbic acid was included.  Overall, the level of nitrites in processed meats has steadily decreased since 1926. 

So history and science have given us better preserved meats.  This is a good story.  Problem is the meat industry has defended whatever they were doing, even as nitrite levels were reduced.  This defensiveness, combined with their political clout, has slowed the rate of progress.  There is likely a better method for curing meat waiting to be discovered; the meat industry should improve their image by proactively contributing to the search.

The Bottom Line

If you enjoy the traditional preserved meats, those available now contain minimal preservatives.  Our favorites include ham, bacon, and a few lunchmeats, but we eat very little.  We’re going to make it a rule to eat less than one serving weekly. Budget wisdom:  Because of their higher cost, minimizing processed meats improves your chance of staying within the family food budget.

Pregnant women are advised to avoid processed meats completely.  If I had a family history of cancer I would avoid processed meats, per the American Institute for Cancer Research’s guidance; likewise for a risk of diabetes. 

Please comment on how you reduce your exposure to preservatives like nitrite.

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Reader Comments (14)

Another great post. In a future post could you talk about salt and how much better sea salt is? ...or isn't?

June 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCamaronO

If you do want to take meat on a campout, a good alternative is freeze dried meat. It has no preservatives and maintains its nutrients in the freeze drying process. It also tastes just like fresh meat once you rehydrate it. Other freeze dried food is great too for these situations. It doesn't spoil, is light weight, requires no additives or preservatives to maintain shelf life, tastes awesome, and maintains natural nutritional value. FD berries are also thought to reduce the risk of certain types of cancers.

June 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHilary

I hope this isn't a foolish question but I'm wondering what is considered processed meat? For example, I just bought a turkey breast from Coscto. It's wrapped in plastic, says its preservative free and fully cooked. The ingredients are turkey, water and salt. Would it have to list nitrates as an ingredient? We started buying this meat about a year ago so we can slice it ourselves for sandwiches and to avoid processed lunch meats. But now I'm wondering if this isn't just as processed as the other stuff.....

June 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDee

I'm with Dee above. I think I know what processed meats are, but now I'm not so sure. I really couldn't tell you what is and what isn't processed. I just thought deli meat was, and that's it.

Also, this post is so interesting! I had no idea about all this. When I became pregnant with my baby boy, I made sure to eat super well. I knew I wasn't supposed to have deli meat, so I didn't, at least in the first trimester. I had a few hoagies now and then in the 9 months, but not much. I just couldn't give it up completely. :) Now that I read that it's connected with cancer and other diseases, I will definitely be rethinking. What about things like pancetta?

Anyway, thank you for the posts, as always. I'm hooked to your blog and I just love taking little steps to improve my health and the prevention of disease.

June 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRikki

Dee, "processed" isn't the most accurate name for preservative-cured meats, as even fresh meats are more and more processed. Perhaps meat should just be "fresh" and "cured". One key to separating the packaged meat that are uncured is to look for a expiration or "use by" date. Processed meats that are not cured will usually have such a date. Added sodium nitrite is usually the last item on the ingredient list. If the nitrite was from a plant source (celery juice, or celery powder) it might be listed, or just included as "natural flavors".
In a future post I'll tell about the meat department my father operated in the '30s in the family grocery store. Things were much simpler then, as you might imagine. Best to you.

June 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

We enjoy our processed meats: bacon, some lunch meat (like pastrami), and hot dogs. I like to think of them as "last resort" lunch foods for when we don't have any leftovers from dinner the night before.

I tend to alternate which processed meat I buy. I shop every 2 weeks, so I buy only one type of processed meat each time. Generally, we use it cut up and stuck into whatever we're eating: chopped lunch meat (ham, turkey) is good in fried rice, hot dog bits in macaroni and cheese (ask any kid!) and bacon pieces mixed in with omelets. Since the processed meats are so salty, I find that they add lots of flavor without needing to add very much at all.

Thanks for the clarification on regular vs. organic. I always wonder about the credibility of organic foods. I have a lot less trust in the people who provide food for us than I used to. It seems that they just want our money and don't care if what we eat is healthy or safe. That's just sad.

June 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

Hi Skip! My husband and I have been enjoying your blog so much and it has really led to some lively food discussions. I had to chime in on your "pregnant women are advised to avoid processed meats completely" comment. I am currently pregnant and also have several friends that are pregnant, and all of us have been advised to avoid deli meat, not cured meat, because of the higher risk of salmonella and such. If the advice is to avoid processed meats with nitrates, the message isn't really getting out there. I was even told to just put deli meat in the microwave for a few seconds if I really wanted to eat it, by my doctor. I think your broader message makes tons of sense, especially after reading this post, but can you tell me where I can find more information on this being advice for pregnant women? I want to be able to point others to read up on it also.

June 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

We rarely eat processed meats mostly because we cut back on meat consumption in general. I do use bacon occasionally to flavor beans. I was buying organic or all-natural bacon. It is interesting to find out that it still contains nitrates. Good reason to eat is occasionally!

Now that it is summer I can't seem to get away from the hot dogs on the grill for the kids when we are invited to barbeques. Of course we gladly eat what we are served, but I find it odd to feed children hot dogs because "they don't care what they eat". (But of course most kids love them!) I just want to feed my son the best food I can afford to give him because his little growing body needs it. If anything feed me the hot dog, spare my boy from the nitrates! ;)

June 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

Kate, you asked about the guidance that pregnant women should avoid processed (containing nitrates and nitrites) completely. While neither the FDA or CDC has sufficient formal evidence to ban processed meats for women, two issues are raised: 1) the risk of listeria, and 2) the risk of brain tumors.

1) Regarding listeria, pregnant women have a greater vulnerability estimated at 20-fold greater to death from listeria (there are about 500 listeria deaths annually; 27% are pregnant women). If you choose to eat processed meats, most sources advise to cook processed meats to at least 160 degrees F. (until steamy) internal temp. Because you can't count on deli restaurants to do this, it is better to not order these foods. You can do it at home but there is alto the issue that cooking converts nitrates/nitrites to nitrosamines which are a risk factor for certain cancers.

2) One study (see found a 100-200% higher rate of child brain tumors when mothers ate 3 mg of nitrites daily. It is logical that cancer at other sites may be a higher risk also, though there are no studies yet published, to my knowledge.

Canned meats (which don't use nitrate or nitrite) are a wise choice for pregnant women, especially around the 30th week. Consider canned sardines, as they are also a rich source of the omega-3 DHA which is important to brain development.

June 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I am curious now. I take my lunch to work nearly every day to save money and have a little more control. I sometimes pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I've made a few all-vegetable sandwiches with hummus spread in my day. It just seems to me like a lot of foods that would be good word of wisdom wise are not that great to pack around and eat later. You've just got to be more creative, because the lunch meat sandwich that is really easy to put together every morning is processed meat.

I have taken a big bowl of cous cous salad with me to store in the work refrigerator for a week of lunches, but my list of healthy lunches to tote along or prepare quickly at home on a lunch break is way too short. Do you or your readers have suggestions?

June 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Angela, this is a great question. Readers, please share what you do. Here are two healthy luncheon meats, one commonly used the other out of fashion: tuna and sardines. Does your list of salads include a carrot and raisin salad, or a good cole slaw? Best.

June 13, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

The post was super great. But, I'm still a little confused. I had stopped buying "sandwhich" meat that was prepackaged and had been buying from the deli folks (watching them slice it up for me from a bigger hunk of meat) because I had heard that that meat had no nitrates and you should eat it within 5 days. But, it sounds like this meat is just as likely to have nitrates.

I usually try to by turkey because you hear it is healthier. Sandwiches at lunchtime have been a cheap staple for us for a long time. I thought I was doing a good thing - piling on the lettuce, tomato, etc. with my cheese and turkey, but maybe that's really not the case . . .

I'm on board with what's being said/explained here, I'm just not sure how to make eating less meat in my family a reality. Also, my kids and husband seem to abhor vegetables and beans. I worry about them not getting enough protein.

This is hard :( But, knowing is half the battle, right?

June 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Fisher

Great post - thanks for answering my questions. This is probably my biggest challenge area. We eat very little meat, but much of what we do eat is processed - I love bacon on Monday mornings. There have been some good suggestions in moving toward fresher meats (while still having just a little), and I really like the idea of using tuna fish to flavor sauces (instead of sausage) - still in budget and still word of wisdom healthy. I am going to look more at doing my own processing (nitrate free - including celery salt) and preserving using the freezer.

June 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg

Joy, you raise a good question, whether the deli meats they slice in front of you are better than the meats that come pre-sliced and packaged. If I was choosing I would follow you and prefer the meat sliced in front of me I think, for several reasons. For one, I like that I'm seen more of the processing (slicing). It might be cheaper too.

Is there sliced meat in your deli that is "fresh", meaning not cured?

This whole issue is perplexing for people who regularly eat a meat sandwich for lunch but here are three suggestions:
Step 1. Follow Joy's plan, double the veggies and use half the meat. You'll eat better and save money.
Step 2. Have a tuna sandwich one more time per week than you do now. Try a sardine sandwich as an experiment. You might like it.
Step 3. Have a salad for lunch one more time per week than now.

Eating better is this simple. Don't fret over being perfect, just take a few positive steps and persist.
Best to you.

June 13, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

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