Packing a turkey sandwich in your kid's lunchbox, or serving up bacon or hot dogs?
When shopping for processed meats, many health-conscious consumers look for products with words like "no nitrates added" or "uncured" on the packaging. But we may have been misled, experts say.
A new report finds that deli meats with those labels actually contain similar levels of nitrates as meats that don't carry these labels.
Part of the explanation lies in federal labeling rules for processed meats. When hot dog or bacon manufacturers use natural curing agents, such as celery powder, in lieu of synthetic sodium nitrite, they can be required to use terms such as "no nitrates added" and "uncured." In other cases, food manufacturers may add these claims voluntarily, perhaps for marketing reasons.
The "labels could make people think these meats are healthier," says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. "But our tests show they are not."
Consumer Reports tested 31 deli meat products including roast beef, salami, turkey and ham. The products included both name brands and store brands.
"Deli meats carrying these labels pose the same health risks as traditionally cured meats, because the nitrate and nitrite levels are essentially the same," Vallaeys says.
Consumer Reports and the Center for Science in the Public Interest submitted a petition Thursday to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, urging the agency to revise its labeling rules.
"These claims are absolutely misleading for consumers," says Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"The label says the product has no nitrite or nitrate added," Sorscher says. But the reality is that "they've simply switched to a different source."
The USDA told NPR that the agency will review the petition and make a decision based upon its analysis.
"There is little evidence that preserving meats using celery ... is any healthier than other added nitrites," says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
A body of evidence suggests that processed meats are linked to elevated cancer risk. Experts think part of the problem is the nitrites used to cure them. "All nitrites can be converted in the food, during cooking, or in the body to nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic," Mozaffarian explains.
"Until industry provides strong evidence that nitrites in celery juice have different biologic effects than nitrites from other sources, it's very misleading to label these as nitrite-free," he says.
A study published earlier this year estimates that about 40% of colorectal cancer cases in the U.S. are linked to diet-related factors, including excessive consumption of red and processed meats.
"This suggests that we're eating a lot more processed meat than is healthy," the author of the study, Fang Fang Zhang, a nutrition and cancer epidemiologist at Tufts University, said in an email.
So, is it possible to find a deli meat or hot dog that's truly nitrate-free? "We have heard that these products do exist," Sorscher told us. "We are told they look gray instead of pink, and may have an 'off' flavor, which may explain why they're not so popular."
So, here's a consumer tip: When you see a "no nitrates added" label, look for an asterisk pointing to fine print that may say something like "no nitrates except those naturally occurring in celery powder." That asterisk basically contradicts the nitrate-free claim.
If you don't see an asterisk, the product might indeed be nitrate-free. "But if you are looking to avoid these chemicals because [you] want to eat healthier, your best bet is to skip processed meat altogether," Sorscher says. Healthier options, she says, include unprocessed chicken, fish and, of course, veggies.