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Is the sodium nitrate in lunch meat bad for kids?

My daughter isn't a very adventurous eater – when she likes something, she wants it all the time, and I'm usually just relieved that she's eating anything. A recent favorite is a ham sandwich with mayo. It's one of the few things she'll finish without complaint. I've heard mixed things about the real dangers of sodium nitrate in lunch meat, and I hear that the "nitrate free" brands aren't actually any better. Is there a real health concern if she is eating lunch meat 3 or 4 days a week?

Answers

From what I've read, eating a lot of sodium nitrate has some potentially negative side effects, including an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. And the lunch meats labeled "nitrate free" still contain naturally occurring nitrates (usually from celery juice), which might not be significantly better or safer. I think the general rule of eating in moderation definitely applies here – the occasional hot dog or ham sandwich isn't a big deal, but if there are alternatives that you can get your daughter excited about, that's probably preferable.

I've seen various numbers about how much is okay for kids, including a recommendation of less than 12 servings of processed meat a month – so 3 or 4 days a week might be on the upper limit of ideal.

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This is a great question that I think a lot of parents wonder about, so I thought I would elaborate a bit on Beth's great answer.

Why do certain foods have nitrates and nitrites?  

Nitrates and nitrites are often used to make cured meats like hot dogs, bacon and lunch meats. Their role is to prevent bacteria from growing on these foods. What many people don’t realize is that sodium nitrate is quite abundant in nature and is present naturally in many vegetables (like celery and carrots), as well as fruits and grains. This is because nitrate and nitrites are byproducts of nitrogen – a crucial nutrient for both plants and animals. As plants and animals metabolize nitrogen they excrete nitrates and nitrites into the soil and water. This is why root vegetables tend to have more sodium nitrate/nitrite.

Does sodium nitrate intake negatively affect your health? 

This is still controversial – after all, I just told you that sodium nitrate is in many vegetables. The most widely-discussed health concern related to sodium nitrates is a possible increased risk of cancer. Several studies have shown that high intake of processed meats (ham, bacon, hot dogs) are associated with a higher risk of colorectal and pancreatic cancer. However, other studies have shown no association. It is also hard to tease out whether these increases are due to overall lifestyle effects of people who consume large amounts of processed foods vs. sodium nitrate specifically. In children, it's again a mixed picture, with select studies showing associations of nitrate exposure with increased incidence of cancers and diabetes, and others showing no effect.

At very high levels there are known toxic effects of nitrates, especially in infants less than four months of age. In young infants toxic levels of nitrates can cause methemoglobinemia – a condition that causes decreased oxygen delivery in the blood. This however is rare and usually due to contaminated well water mixed with formula, or early exposure to baby food containing nitrates (remember infants shouldn’t have solid food until after 4 months!). 

The EPA has a summary pdf on research related to the health effects of nitrates, and the cdc has a good patient-education pdf as well:

A link http://www.epa.gov/teach/chem_summ/Nitrates_summary.pdf
A link http://www.epa.gov/teach/chem_summ/Nitrates_summary.pdf
A link http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/nitrate_2013/docs/nitrate_patient-education.pdf


What does nitrate-free mean? 

Most food products labeled nitrate-free really mean free of synthetic sodium nitrite/nitrates. In fact, they instead usually use celery powder in the curing process which naturally has high amounts of sodium nitrites. So I'm not so sure that nitrate-free products are really that different.

Finally: What should you do?

I don't think there is a clear cut answer, which is why the FDA and AAP haven't made a recommendation on limiting sodium nitrate intake. You don’t need to cut cured and processed meats completely out of your or your child’s diet (I still eat my bacon and sausage!) and you certainly shouldn’t avoid root vegetables like celery and carrots just because they are high in sodium nitrates. That being said, limiting cured and processed meats is good for your overall health, since they contain high amounts of fat and salt. So either way, moderation is a good thing! 

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nitrate free for anyone is the best way to go as well as organic or minimally processed lunch meats. The best brand is definitely Boars Head ad they always have nutritional pamphlets at deli counters or online. hope this information helps. :0)

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