Deli Counter Deception: 'No Nitrates Added' Claim Is Incorrect

Public Domain Unsplash. Unsplash

Consumer Reports explains why the curing source for processed meats doesn't matter. It's all bad for you.

You might want to think twice before reaching for deli meat that's labeled 'no nitrates added' – or at least gather a bit more information before opting to spend extra on what many shoppers perceive to be a healthier option. According to a new analysis by Consumer Reports (CR), deli meats labeled as 'uncured' or 'no nitrates added' contain similar levels of nitrates to those found in meats without those labels. This applied to all meats tested – chicken, ham, roast beef, turkey, and salami.

The reason some meats are labeled as nitrate-free is because processors have replaced the usual curing agent (synthetic sodium nitrite) with a natural curing agent (celery powder). Because the source is different, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires processors to label it as 'no nitrates or nitrites added,' even though it's not technically correct. There is usually an asterisk leading shoppers to fine print that says something like "no nitrates except those naturally occurring in celery powder," which, NPR points out, contradicts the nitrate-free claim.

As Consumer Reports states, "Though uncured meats must also be labeled with a statement that clarifies that they have nitrates and nitrites from natural sources, that language is usually buried in fine print and doesn’t explain that those compounds are chemically identical to synthetic ones."

The health risks are the same, too, regardless of whether a curing agent was synthetic or natural. Added nitrates convert to nitrites in the human body. These interact with protein and create compounds called nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. In the words of Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University,

"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."

NPR cites a study that linked 40 percent of colorectal cancer cases to dietary factors, including eating excessive amounts of red and processed meats. The Consumer Reports analysis references a link between meat and bladder and breast cancers. A 2017 analysis published in JAMA said it could be "responsible for almost 58,000 deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes each year."

Consumer Reports is calling on the Department of Agriculture to clarify its labeling standards. It has submitted a petition that asks the agency to "cease requiring that such products be labeled as 'Uncured,' and/or 'No Nitrate or Nitrite Added*' when they have been processed using non-synthetic sources of nitrate and nitrite," because, as Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest explained, "These claims are absolutely misleading for consumers."

In the meantime, shoppers would be wise to avoid processed deli meats as much as possible. Find other ways to make a delicious lunch using unprocessed meats or, better yet, beans, vegetables, grains, and nuts.