What's Really in Those Lunch Meats

Michael Hirt, MD


A ham-and-cheese sandwich is about as American as Mom and apple pie. It seems innocent enough, maybe even healthful, filled as it is with protein. But the ham in sandwiches from delis and diners is mostly processed -- as are turkey, chicken, salami, sausage and virtually every other type of lunch meat that is so popular in this country.


A recent study from the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii raised red flags about the safety of lunch meats after an analysis of the eating habits and health of more than 190,000 men and women. The study revealed that people with the highest intake of processed meat had a 67% increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer when compared with the group that ate the least amount of it. Scary, yes, but my sources say that the researchers are drawing the wrong conclusions on this study and missing the more dangerous elements of consuming lunch meats.




As frightening as the research conclusion is, Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, points out that this was not a controlled study in that the researchers did not isolate groups based on specific nutritional or health profiles. It is a leap to conclude that lunch meats cause pancreatic cancer. Especially since, according to Michael Hirt, MD, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine in Tarzana, California, the incidence of pancreatic cancer (about 31,000 deaths in America each year) is relatively low versus the immense amount of lunch meat consumed.




Although lunch meats may not "cause" pancreatic cancer, they nonetheless are not the protein panacea many would like them to be. First and foremost, lunch meats are full of additives, including nitrites, which, according to Dr. Rubman, are used by the food industry as a "cheap antioxidant" to protect the meat from being eaten by bacteria. Nitrites have been linked to other forms of cancer, including stomach and esophageal. There are other, more natural options that the food industry could use, but they're more expensive.


In addition to nitrites, lunch meats are also laden with sodium and fat -- and these are not heart-friendly. Dr. Hirt points out that nearly one out of two people in this country dies from heart disease, making the numbers close to one million deaths annually -- and the impact of lunch meat consumption on heart health is his major concern.




But surely some lunch meats aren't so bad. Dr. Hirt agrees that fresh, center-cut oven-roasted turkey breast is fine. Rolled turkey breast, however, is processed and full of sodium. Roast beef is fatty, cured and processed. There are some nitrite-free, organic brands of cold cuts that are better.


Best of all: Get the meats fresh-cooked by the market, or roast your own meat and slice it yourself.


 Bottom Line's Daily Health News