What is really in processed meats?

Oct 21, 2015

By Contributing Author : Janeal Yancey, Ph.D., University of ArkansasJanealYancey 

In the US, we have some of the most stringent food labeling laws in the world. If an ingredient is in a food, then it is on the label. (Side note: I worked at a grocery store in college, and occasionally we had to package ‘real Mexican Chorizo’. Being a meat academic, I read the ingredient statement on the label. Do you really think this company would let us know that their product contained pork salivary glands if they didn’t have to? Uh. No.) If you want to know chris hanging pepperoniwhat is in a certain processed meat, look on the label. If it says ‘Beef’ or ‘Pork’ like most processed meats do, it is only skeletal meat (muscles used to move the bones around). As of right now, that means beef products may contain lean, finely textured beef. Any organ meat (hearts, livers) have to be listed on the label.

lean trimSo, why are processed meats inexpensive? Well, not every bit of a beef or pork carcass will make a good steak or roast. Sometimes the pieces are too small, and sometimes it is too tough to be eaten without being ground up. Those pieces are combined and ground up. Processors add other ingredients like salt and spices for flavor and texture. They are adding value to the low-cost parts and giving us a great tasting, inexpensive source of protein. Processed meats are the only source for protein for kids from some families because it is all they can afford.

Furthermore, lots of processed meats (hot dogs, bologna, and deli meats) are pre-cooked and can be eaten straight out of the fridge*. They are quick and easy. Any meat product that is ‘ready-to-eat’, meaning completely cooked and ready to be served to the consumer without any further preparation, is subject to extra regulations by USDA. They have to show how they are keeping their product safe, they may add extra, bacteria fighting measures to the process, and are subject to extra bacteria testing. It is safe stuff.

Some people worry about nitrite in processed meats. Nitrite is a key ingredient that gives cured meats the flavor and color we have become accustomed to enjoying. Think pink hams and hot dogs. Yum! Also, nitrite prevents the growth of a nasty bacteria Clostridium botulinum, the one that causes botulism.

Did you know that you get more nitrite from green, leafy vegetables than from processed meats? Actually, the body makes nitrite using saliva combined with these vegetables because it needs it. The body uses nitrite to perform all kinds of functions from regulating blood pressure to helping heal wounds and brain injury after a stroke.

The folks at the North American Meat Institute did an interview with a friend of mine, Jeff Sindelar at the University of Wisconsin about sources of nitrite in the diet. His main research focus is on nitrites in processed meats.

hotdogsThere are some very scary claims out there linking hot dogs with an increased cancer risk. Although these claims are recurrently cycled on the news, the data that they are based on is from over 40 years ago. They claim that the nitrite in processed meats (hot dogs) is a carcinogen. There is a researcher at the University of Texas named Dr. Nathan Bryan who studies the effects of dietary nitrite on the human body, and he says that current research not only found no cancer risk with nitrite, but also found health benefits. Basically, current science says, “Don’t be afraid of hotdogs!”

Dr. Yancey is a mom of two fabulous little girls and an advocate of the meat industry. She has a passion for providing education and information to anyone who has questions, follow her blogs to stay informed!

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