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.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
More and more Americans are trying to get healthy, to improve their diet, and that's why you've been seeing more labels on deli meats that say uncured or no nitrates added. But consumer groups say healthy eaters are being duped in the deli aisle. They're calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to step in and change its labeling rules. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Whether it's bacon, hot dogs or sandwich meats, such as turkey and ham, that are so popular in school lunch boxes, lots of brands are labeled with healthy-sounding terms.
LINDSAY MOYER: Many of these products were looking at have a no nitrates label. They say natural. They say organic. They look like a better product.
AUBREY: That's Lindsay Moyer, a registered dietitian with the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest. The problem, she says, is that recent tests show that many of the products labeled as no nitrates added have just as many nitrates as those that don't carry these claims.
MOYER: You're getting the same nitrates and nitrites.
AUBREY: And why? Well, in order to cure meats, manufacturers have typically used a synthetic curing agent, such as sodium nitrite. But if they switch to a natural agent, such as celery powder, then the no nitrate added label is used. This may sound better, but the celery powder contains nitrates, too. And scientists think all these nitrates, regardless of the source, may lead to the formation of carcinogenic compounds in our bodies when we eat processed meats.
MOYER: That may help explain why eating these meats, over time, increases the risk of cancer.
AUBREY: So is this confusing, you think, to consumers? Do people look for these no nitrates added, thinking it's healthier?
MOYER: Absolutely. This is misleading. Many people are going out of their way to buy these meats. And the USDA should not allow claims like no nitrates when nitrates and nitrites are present.
AUBREY: Consumer groups have petitioned the USDA to change its rules, and the agency tells NPR it will review the request.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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