Nothing says "lunchtime" in the United States like a good, old-fashioned sandwich—turkey, ham, roast beef, pastrami and even bologna are key ingredients in some of America's favorite midday meals. But while deli meats are a popular staple among consumers, they can also be bearers of many unhealthy ingredients, such as preservatives and other additives. Fortunately, the organic and natural deli meat category is on the rise, providing consumers with wholesome, clean meat options that actually taste good too.
Deli meats, by definition, are supposed to last—they're designed to keep in the refrigerator for up to six weeks. But this "stay-fresh" quality comes at a price. Many conventional deli meats are filled with chemicals like nitrates, nitrites, phosphates and artificial flavors and colors to preserve freshness and impart a characteristic pink hue. Furthermore, some conventional processed meat companies add "cheapening ingredients," like water or fat, to cut costs. To compensate for the loss of flavor that comes with watering down the meat, companies then add artificial flavoring agents and sodium to generate a real "meat" taste, says Ed Jenkins, president of Denver-based Coleman Natural Foods' prepared foods division. This practice results in a product that is low in protein and high in fat or chemicals.
Savvy consumers are beginning to realize that the chemical additives in conventional meat could harm more than their taste buds. Scientific research supports the belief that consuming meat treated with hormones, antibiotics, preservatives and artificial ingredients can be dangerous to one's health. An August study published in the International Journal of Cancer links consumption of processed meat to stomach cancer, and a study published in the June 2005 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute asserts that consuming high levels of red and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
And, according to a March 2000 study published in Carcinogenesis that identifies nutrition and diet as one of three major factors in cancer development, nitrite-related materials are "genotoxic agents," which means they are capable of causing genetic mutation and of contributing to the development of tumors. What's more, according to the Extension Toxicology Network, a pesticide information project associated with several U.S. universities, there is a possibility that when nitrites combine with carbaryl, a pesticide commonly used in livestock and poultry production, the result is a highly carcinogenic substance called nitrosocarbaryl, which can form in the human stomach.
"Chemicals in meat are also an issue for people with food sensitivities or allergies, especially young children whose immune systems haven't fully developed yet," says Charlie Moore, vice president and co-owner of Denver-based Maverick Ranch, producer of natural and organic meats. Maverick Ranch is introducing its new line of both natural and organic sandwich meats this fall, which will include smoked turkey, roast beef, smoked ham, roast buffalo and roast chicken, all made from animals raised without antibiotics or hormones, on a vegetarian diet, and with no artificial preservatives or other chemicals.
Some natural deli meats are preserved with naturally occurring salts and bacterial cultures such as sodium lactate and lactic acid starter culture, says Robyn Nick, a spokeswoman for Coleman Natural Foods. "These mimic the curing effect that you get in conventional products, naturally, the way they used to do it a long time ago." Natural deli meats will stay good in the refrigerator for up to 60 days, but once opened, will only last two to five days.
As awareness grows, the idea of chemical-free deli meat is catching on. Maverick Ranch's sales grew more than 25 percent in the last year, according to Moore. Even Hormel Foods Corp., manufacturer of conventional meat products, recently launched a Natural Choice line of deli meats. Instead of using preservatives like nitrites and nitrates, Hormel "prepares the meat with an all-natural, [U.S. Department of Agriculture]-approved process that uses high water pressure technology to protect the meat against harmful bacteria without compromising its taste or nutritional value," according to the Hormel Web site.
Nick sounds a note of caution, however. "When comparing natural companies to conventional companies that have a natural line of deli meat, their product is naturally processed—they use the same curing process we do and nearly the same ingredients we do. Where it differs is that the animals they use to make the meat were not raised naturally. They were still potentially given hormones and antibiotics."
And, she says, in order for the USDA to approve the use of the word natural on a deli meat label, the product must be naturally processed after the animal is slaughtered, but does not require the animal to have been raised naturally or given natural feed. All natural and organic companies not only use natural processes to preserve the meat, but use meat that was naturally or organically raised, she says.
Wende Elliott, founding farmer and chief executive of Wholesome Harvest, a Colo, Iowa-based natural and organic meat business, makes sure her meat comes from certified organic farms. But Elliott is part of the "beyond organic" movement, which assures that animals also are raised humanely and are pasture-fed and allowed to graze unconfined. "Animals that eat grass on a pasture the way they're naturally meant to are healthier and therefore provide healthier meat for us to eat. It's higher in vitamins, minerals and healthy omega-3 fatty acids, it boosts the immune system and has less saturated fat and more healthy amino acids than meat raised on industrial farms," Elliot says.
In fact, a study published in the November 2000 Journal of Animal Science found that when comparing meat from cattle raised on five different dietary regimens, the cattle that ate the most grass produced meat that was lower in saturated fatty acids and higher in conjugated linoleic acid, a dietary fatty acid that studies are showing may be good for health an weight-management.
Besides including more grass or grains in the diet of livestock, it's also important to ensure the animals don't consume certain unhealthy substances. For instance, on many industrial farms, Moore says, it is common practice for farmers to encourage weight gain in their animals by giving them steroids and hormones, which in turn compromise the animals' immune systems. To offset the livestock's susceptibility to disease, they are then given antibiotics. Moore believes the chemicals animals are given while they're alive can have as negative an impact as the ones added when the meat is processed. "The concern is that the antibiotics used to treat livestock are partially contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans," he says.
Stephen McDonald, chief executive and founder of Bridgewater, N.J.-based Applegate Farms, maker of deli meat free of nitrates, phosphates, hormones, steroids, antibiotics and additives, agrees that the antibiotics and hormones in an animal's diet could have a negative impact on consumers. "Some scientists believe that the hormones found in conventional meat are causing children to develop prematurely," he says.
To encourage consumers in their quest for cleaner meat, Michelle Neilson, co-owner and general manager of Vancouver, B.C.-based Mclean Meats, suggests retailers have a nutritionist on hand to suggest wise deli-meat choices. "The interest in organic and natural meat is already growing every day. If customers hear testimony from an authority about the environmental, nutritional and ethical benefits of natural and organic meat, it will give them the added incentive they need to buy it," she says.
Besides in-store education, it's important to provide customers with the firsthand experience of tasting the meat. "Sampling is the best way to show consumers how much better organic deli meat is, both in nutritional content and flavor. Their first comment after trying it is usually, 'Wow, it tastes like real meat!'" says Coleman's Jenkins.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 76, 80