Kitchen Stewardship | A Baby Steps Approach to Balanced Nutrition

Are the New "Natural" Lunchmeats Real-washed?

July 9th, 2012 · 25 Comments · Food for Thought

nitrate free lunchmeat

When at least 80% of my meat comes directly from the farmer, it feels kind of sacrilegious to buy Oscar Mayer hot dogs.

Conventional (read: cheap, processed) hot dogs have quite a laundry list of things that I find wrong with them, but the one that’s always made me squirm the most, the one that has raised red flags for me the longest, since even before I got into “real food,” is the nitrate thing. Lots and lots of nutrition-talking groups, not just the ultra-conservative traditional foodists, frown upon nitrates, nitrites, and their cancer-causing history.

When even conventional medicine tells pregnant women not to consume nitrates, I figure: “How can they be safe for my kids?”

We’re exploring this topic as part of the Sourcing Quality Animal Products series and in our efforts to find some not-so-compromising convenience foods.

Is All Cured Meat Bad for You?

nitrate free bacon

I don’t buy lunchmeat or bacon often, and I certainly don’t buy it in the regular section of the supermarket very often, but I have been known to spring the extra buck or two to get Hormel Naturals nitrate-free as a treat or quick meal fix. If I apply the same logic of simply avoiding the evil nitrates (which may not be so evil if they’re used right beware, that link will open a can of worms for you if you haven’t read it yet), I might just be purchasing Oscar Mayer dogs for our next camping trip:

“Last year’s successful launch of Oscar Mayer Select Hot Dogs, a product that is among the tiny 0.5 percent of new products launched in the last decade to reach $100 million in their first year, according to data from Symphony IRI Group.” Oscar Mayer is now launching 5 new “Selects” cold cuts products without nitrates or nitrites, plus bacon. The company announced that more than half of new products launched in 2012 will have no artificial preservatives.

Imagine my surprise when I read this article in our local newspaper! source: Grand Rapids Press, Saturday, June 30, 2012

I’m happy to see big brands moving in the right direction, at least. Cutting artificial preservatives can only be a good thing…unless, of course, it gets skewed to be a bad thing because there’s something even more evil to replace them with, but let’s just pretend we’re optimists for now.

Nah, forget that – Big Food Processing companies are only caving to consumer pressure, reading stats like this:

“94% of households surveyed by Mintel, an international market research firm, said they have lunch meat or have used lunch meat. 59% also said they would buy the product if it was natural” – consumer health concerns and viewing lunch meat as overly processed are two reasons for people not buying lunch meat.

Then the company thinks, “Well, we’d better figure out how to make our product seem more natural to the consumer,” rather than, “Let’s figure out the best way to create a natural product that leaves the lightest footprint on the environment, brings nourishment and not harm to consumers’ bodies, and are perhaps closest to the way nature intended.”

Are They Better?

Here’s the real question – if you’re buying a compromise food anyway, is it worth it to pay a bit more for the “Selects” or the “Natural” version of a big brand processed meat? Let’s compare.

Ingredients in Classic Oscar Mayer hot dogs:oscar mayer hot dogs

Ingredients: MECHANICALLY SEPARATED TURKEY AND MECHANICALLY SEPARATED CHICKEN, PORK, WATER, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF SALT, GROUND MUSTARD SEED, SODIUM LACTATE, CORN SYRUP, DEXTROSE, SODIUM PHOSPHATES, SODIUM DIACETATE, SODIUM ASCORBATE, SODIUM NITRITE, FLAVOR. 1

Ingredients in Oscar Mayer Selects Premium hot dogs:

Ingredients: chicken, turkey, pork, water, corn sugar, salt, celery juice, vinegar, lemon juice, cherry powder and sodium phosphates (less than 2%). 2

Ingredients in Oscar Mayer Naturally Hardwood Smoked Bacon:

Ingredients: CURED WITH WATER, SALT, SUGAR, SODIUM PHOSPHATES, SODIUM ASCORBATE, SODIUM NITRITE. 3

Ingredients in Oscar Mayer Selects Smoked Uncured Bacon:

Ingredients: PORK, WATER, SEA SALT, EVAPORATED CANE SYRUP, CULTURED CELERY JUICE. 4

The fishy part? Most of the Selects products – the lunchmeats, and even the bacon – on the website don’t list ingredients. Wha? Any brand that wants to speak to a healthy-minder consumer must – I repeat, must – fully disclose ingredients. Red flag.

Are these “healthy hot dogs?” Let’s examine:

  • They still have sugar. Do you like the phrase “corn sugar?” It’s the additive formerly known as HFCS, you know.
  • They still have sodium phosphates, whatever that is – it’s not in MY kitchen cabinets.
  • The celery stuff still creates nitrates during the curing process, from what I understand. Phooey badooey.
  • The animals are still raised on who-knows-what standing on cement in massive barns – not happy piggies. Or chickens. Or turkeys.
  • The animals are likely hopped up on antibiotics and hormones. Yum, right?
  • Nothing is organic.

The bottom line, in my humble opinion, is that these dogs are a step up the ladder from normal dogs – but the ladder is about 12 feet tall.

When you make your purchasing decisions, make sure the price point – and your expectations – aren’t significantly higher on that scale.

Other “Better” Cured Meat Options

The KS community on Facebook rang in on the topics of lunchmeat HERE and listed the following “better” brands that ranged from just being nitrate-free to having other healthier claims:

  • Boarshead brand (Not all are nitrate-free, but you can get a brochure from your deli counter with all the nutritional information, and some Boarshead brand products are Feingold Association approved, which basically means no weird additives. You usually pay a pretty big price premium for this brand; watch for sales.)
  • Hormel nitrate free (LOTS of readers choose this brand, and I have in the past, too. It’s kind of liberating to actually make use of a sale or use a coupon…but Hormel is basically the same “one step up” as the Oscar Mayer brand we walked through above.)
  • Applegate Farms (Nitrate free and also commits to not using antibiotics or hormones, humanely raised, I believe. But still not necessarily organic, fed well, or made traditionally. We find Applegate at our local health food stores.)
  • Niman Ranch (I’ve never tried them, but Niman has an incredible reputation for growing happy animals…)
  • grassfed made by local farmer (lucky reader!)
  • Trader Joe’s
  • Legacy (at Meijer deli, reader says!)
  • Wellshire
  • grassfed from Wegman’s supermarket (some may be irradiated, ask questions wisely)
  • Dietz and Watson (not all are nitrate-free)

A smart reader also left us with the question of the day: Does eating nitrite/nitrate free deli meat make it safe to eat? What about nitrite free salami? Is it just the nitrites that make it so evil and cancer causing?

Cancer? Yes, the nitrates. Although the author of the China Study would say that all meat is cancer-causing, but I’m not on that bandwagon.

UPDATE: I can’t believe I forgot about this email from a reader! She tested nitrites and nitrates at home with some sort of test strips and shared the info with us – awesome! This was in response to the claims that celery powder and the like create more nitrates during processing than just adding sodium nitrate itself:

It’s a very random list, and I never could bring myself to get nitrate-added products just to test them.

In the list below, I report it as “<0.15 ppm” for Nitrites and “<1 ppm” for Nitrates even though the label for the color was 0 ppm (seems like there still could be a trace).
  • Trader Joe’s All Natural Uncured Turkey Hot Dogs (“No nitrates or nitrites added”): 15 ppm Nitrites, <1 ppm Nitrates
  • Trader Joe’s chicken sausage (tomato-basil, “No nitrates or nitrites added”): <0.15 ppm Nitriates, 10 ppm Nitrates
  • An orange from our neighbor’s yard: <0.15 ppm Nitrites, <1 ppm Nitrates
  • Organic apple: <0.15 ppm Nitrites, <1 ppm Nitrates
  • Broccoli (organic): <0.15 Nitrites, 20-50 ppm Nitrates
  • Kombucha (homemade): <0.15 ppm Nitrites, <1 ppm Nitrates
I also tried to test our local pastured bacon (I don’t know how it’s cured).  I’m not sure how it could be tested once cooked, because the grease pretty much didn’t react with the test strip.

In other words, nitrate/nitrite free lunchmeat probably does have some in it anyway…but about the same as organic broccoli.

Back to other reasons cured meats might be harmful for you…Common culture and the government would say that the high level of saturated fats in things like salami are bad for your heart and other organs. Traditional foodies would say that the fat collects the toxins in the feed and meds given to the animals, so you’re inviting problems there.

I would say…

Lunchmeat should always be a “sometimes food,” part of the 20% compromise in the 80/20 keeping-your-sanity eating plan.

Especially if it comes in a package with corporate branding on it.

What to do Instead?

Much better to roast or grill a chicken or slow cooker some beef, then slice it for sandwiches.

For many, if you compare apples to apples as far as how the meat is sourced, you’ll find that those tiny packages of Applegate Farms meat come out to $12/pound, and it’s not even organic. Bet you do better than that wherever you source your meat!

What do you put on your sandwiches?

We don’t have sandwiches very often at all, in case you were wondering about the KS kitchen. Egg salad with homemade mayo was the most recent; tuna fish is another likely option, or Applegate Farms on a grain-free crepe or corn tortilla.

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25 Comments so far ↓

  • Wendy

    GREAT article~! I have just recently been looking into this because I was curious to know if “uncured” meant better. And I’ve been spending those extra dollars on the OM Selects hotdogs and Hormel Natural lunch meats for several months now.

    In addition to what you wrote, this is what I learned, if I understand correctly: “Uncured” simply means the nitrites/nitrates were not specifically used in a curing process. Instead, the exact same preserving/curing process is done with celery juice, which contains nitrites/nitrates. It sounds better at first glance, but is not necessarily so, because the amount of nitrates/nitrites in celery is not regulated.

    One article found some “natural” hotdogs contained up to ten times the amount allowed in regular hotdogs. Yikes!! They did say that Applegate Farms had the standard amount, so I will be looking them up.

    I’ve also been wondering about the celery not being organic. It’s rated second worst food for pesticide levels on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list. That can’t be good, either!

    Thank you for this very helpful post!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • KarenL

    have you tried “side pork” for bacon? It is raw, uncured “bacon” which you season yourself as you cook it. We love bacon and are willing to pay the extra $$ to get this delightful meat!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Jennifer

    I find it interesting that you should mention the China Study. I have just finished reading “Wheat Belly” and the author spends a good bit discussing the correlations made in the China Study, particularly the focus on meat=bad and the complete lack of mention of grains despite a much, much higher correlation to negative outcomes.

    The whole nitrate/nitrite issue has me sourcing sausage and bacon from a local traditional foods farm/butchery. And for the most part, I’m skipping prepared meats, instead just making more when I prepare meals and letting the hot dogs pass me by. What’s a kitchen steward to do?

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Rosie

    This is a very informative article — you touched on it towards the end there, but what do you suggest if I want to cut way back on lunch meats (nitrate-free or otherwise) for my family?

    Priorities include nutrition, costs, and prep time. I’d love to hear any advice you have! Thanks!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Joanna Reply:

    Hi Rosie, I wrote a post about alternatives to lunch meat. Hope you find it helpful! http://plusothergoodstuff.blogspot.com/2011/06/easy-change-5-find-lunchmeat.html

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Bethany

    I just want to say thanks. I love the topics you tackle and the honest way that you tackle them–you’re wading through the mire of food decisions along with the rest of us and haven’t “arrived” yet and you’re honest about that. I really appreciate it!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Michaela

    I thought the celery salt/celery juice created more nitrites than the regular sodium nitrite stuff? We’ve been avoiding even the Hormel Naturals meat after I read one of your posts with a link that said celery salt/celery juice was just as bad, if not worse.

    Confused. :-/ Help, please?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Michaela,
    I did mention the celery stuff in this post, too – not sure how I feel about it, but actually, I’m editing the post today with some home nitrate testing a reader did on some nitrate free hot dogs!

    We’re all confused, too…Just buying real meat is the best way to go…
    :/ Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

    Michaela Reply:

    I forgot to mention thanks for the article! Your posts are always SO helpful and informative. I learn a new thing everyday!

    I just came to the decision that I am going to take your advice…just gonna start smoking/roasting our own chicken and turkey for sandwiches. But I am going to miss ham…and salami. Oh well. Thank you so much for all your work. Your website and blog are AMAZING!

    [Reply to this comment]

    Michaela Reply:

    I read the update and that definetly helped me feel better! I guess once in a while it will be okay to buy the Hormel’s lunch meat, but I think I’d still rather grill/roast our own (Not smoke our own like I just previously posted…oop.s). Another question though, where do I find locally sourced meat? Where do I begin/how do I begin the search for local meats, butters, cheeses? The butter and cheese at Whole Foods is EXPENSIVE. I spend sixteen dollars on cheese sticks everytime we go. Its delicious, but expensive!!

    Any ideas where I can start? Google, possibly?

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Michaela,
    Local food sourcing is different everywhere – start with realmilk.com or localharvest.com. Google might help, but finding like-minded people, a local Weston A Price chapter, is ultimately the MOST helpful. If you know where a farmer’s market is, try asking lots of questions there, too.

    You can also see if any real food bloggers are from your area and even ask for help on Facebook pages (ask away at the KS one!). If you have your own FB acct, see if any people you’re already acquainted with have any ideas.

    Good luck with your search!
    :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

    Susan Reply:

    My fibromyalgia and migraines are triggered by nitrates etc. I can eat one pack of Hormel ‘clean’ ham every two weeks without triggering.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Karen

    My husband works in construction (no facilities) and needs a decent lunch. My son is finishing school next year and works with his dad in summer. We don’t do school lunch (he read some of Nourishing Traditions) so he also needs to take something.

    We do the extra roast chicken and roast beef made at home and bone in ham that has to be cooked before eating. We also do tuna and canned wild salmon (will be home canned after this summer), and egg salad. We usually only have hot dogs when we are camping so that isn’t a huge issue for us. Homemade mayo is everyone’s preference, regardless of what else is there, thank you for the tutorial.

    Last fall I picked up a couple squat, wide mouth, stainless steel thermos containers so that I could pack soups and stews to bypass the sandwich issue altogether and over the summer my husband will take an enormous salad with some of that leftover chicken or a can of tuna in it. Son is less enthusiastic about that option.

    Since we started this transition to unprocessed foods, our daughter has noticed heightened sensitivity to unnatural ingredients, so she is our “canary in the coalmine” Artificial sweeteners burn her throat and she absolutely never eats standard bacon. Come to think of it, she doesn’t usually finish a hot dog either. A while ago, we got a meat order from a local butcher shop and we picked up a couple small packages of their own bacon because our son loves bacon. We sometimes have fried egg with cheese sandwiches, but were having BLT’s with the new bacon. She normally replaces the bacon with cheese but she decided to try this bacon. It’s incredible tasting (and smelling) stuff. It has no label, so I will have to ask about it next time. It is also about twice the price of store bacon and about half the weight, so nearly 4 times the price per pound of standard. It smelled very mellow and mild while cooking, and I noticed a certain “sharpness” was missing from the aroma. I wish I could be more specific, but I have a selective sense of smell. I have noticed the same thing with the not-precooked ham we buy. There is one at the very bottom of our freezer, so will have to double check the label. On second thought, the freezer needs defrosting so maybe checking one in the store might be easier.

    I’m wondering if that “sharp” smell is the stuff we need to avoid. When I was a kid I used to get a physical sensation “at the back of my nose” (maybe sinuses) whenever I ate weiners, so I just didn’t eat many. Maybe I was on to something.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Wow, Karen…fascinating! I love that your son has bought into the real food thing on his own at a young age. Yippee! :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Laura Sink

    We have a local turkey farm that raises their turkeys hormone & antibiotic free with no added anything! The lunch meat is wonderful!

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Heather

    The name corn sugar was used for a powdered dextrose used in beer brewing before the Corn Refiners Assoc. tried to rename HFCS. Not sure if the corn sugar listed is that or if it is HFCS since the FDA did reject the name change but I still see commercials from the CRA calling HFCS corn sugar.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Jessica Moore

    Katie,
    You mention Applegate, but have you seen their “The Great Organic Hot Dog?” Check it out here: http://www.applegatefarms.com/products/organic_hot_dog.aspx
    I’m happy with the list of ingredients and ecstatic that it includes grass fed beef.
    The description on the website says they’re “100% grass fed and grass finished.”
    Now if they were only cheaper :)

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Jessica,
    Cool, haven’t seen that yet! I definitely struggle paying a premium for…hot dogs. It just seems wrong. ;) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

    Jessica Moore Reply:

    I know, they’re way too expensive. But they are a convenience food. When I really do need convenience, I’d rather pay with dollars than our health if I can. We use them on the rare occasion when Mommy’s sick or something crazy is going on and I just need the kids to eat lunch and go down for a nap! :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  • katherine

    here’s an article from NPR covering the FDA rejection of corn sugar as a name for HFCS, but i’m not sure if that really stopped them http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/05/30/154009682/fda-rules-corn-syrup-cant-change-its-name-to-corn-sugar

    instead of regular hot dogs, what about substituting traditional sausages like kielbasa, knockwurst, etc? one kielbasa could make at least 6-8 hot dog sized pieces. i used to get mine fresh at a polish deli

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Mmmmm, says this 50% Polish girl! ;) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Dianne

    Hi! Just wondering if you have any thoughts or information on Organic Prairie lunch meat slices? I can order through my co-op and I am trying to decide if it would be a better option than what I currently buy at Trader Joes.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship Reply:

    Dianne,
    I’m not familiar with that brand – just check the ingredients and see what’s in there…

    :) Katie

    [Reply to this comment]

  • Jana

    Great post, so informative! We do buy the Applegate Farms Great Organic Hotdogs, and they seem to be really good, grass-fed and all that, as a reader mentioned above. I have to admit I’m a bacon junkie….we buy bacon every week, and the one we get is a local product that is supposed to be “natural” and uncured. But who really knows! I love it so much I probably turn a blind eye (not necessarily a good thing). I also use the bacon fat in cooking quite a bit, so nothing goes to waste. I would love to be able to roast big cuts of meat (and/or turkey) to slice for lunches and such, but the cost of anything “natural” where we are is prohibitive, which leaves me with supermarket or Costco meat, neither of which is at all appealing. Sigh, I wish it wasn’t so hard to eat well.

    [Reply to this comment]

  • via Facebook

    We switched to the Hormel Naturals Turkey slices (from ALDI deli sliced turkey) recently. About half our lunchmeat comes from that and the other half from our Sunday Chicken Dinner. Would Wellshire Farms (Whole Foods Store) be better? Perhaps I should change my menu to Sunday Turkey Dinner instead… :-)

    [Reply to this comment]

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Welcome!  Meet Katie.

I embrace butter. I make homemade yogurt. I eat traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. Here at Kitchen Stewardship, I share how I strive to be a good steward of my family's nutrition, the environment, and our budget, all without spending every second in the kitchen. Learn more about the mission of KS here.

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