A sandwich can be a quick and easy thing to make for lunch and is very portable if you looking for things to take to work. Lunch meats like turkey, ham, chicken and roast beef are some very lean protein options. However, there can be some downsides to purchasing some of these highly processed meats. Two concerns in particular are the sodium levels and high and that many processed meats contain nitrates/nitrites. So, this leaves many people wonder, are these really healthy choices?
As you probably already know, most Americans consume too much sodium, with most of the sodium coming from processed foods and foods that we eat outside of the home. Sodium is particularly harmful in people with high blood pressure because consuming sodium increases blood pressure in these individuals. (However, contrary to many peoples’ beliefs, sodium does not actually cause high blood pressure.) Typically, 1,500-2,000 mg of sodium per day is considered to be a fairly low sodium diet. Those with high blood pressure should aim for the low end of that range.
So how much sodium is in lunch meats? It can vary from 190 mg in a serving to about 800 mg in a serving depending on the type of meat and the brand. Beware that lower sodium or reduced sodium, just means that it has less sodium than the original version, it does not mean that it is actually low in sodium. For example a lower sodium lunch meat, could still have 400 mg sodium in a 2 oz portion. Therefore, it is always good to read labels so you know what you are getting. The tricky part is, how can you read the labels when it is behind the deli counter? One solution is to do a little homework before you go to the store and look up the nutrition facts online.
For example, Boar’s Head also makes some very good lunch meat options. You can read about their all natural line at: http://boarshead.com/products/all-natural. If you are really looking to keep the sodium down, they do make several products that are “no salt added” and these have ~40 mg per serving. You can view these products at: http://boarshead.com/products/lower-sodium.
Another good brand of lunch meats is Dietz & Watson. They make a line of higher quality lunch meats that are all natural. You can read a little more about them at: http://www.dietzandwatson.com/our-products/all-natural/. While they are not low-sodium, they are lower than many other brands.
Helpful Hint: Try to keep the sodium from the lunch meat to <400 mg, this allows for a little sodium to be in the bread that you are eating and you are still only at 1/3 of your sodium intakes for the day. Do not consume any other processed foods at that meal. If you want to add other sides, add foods that are naturally very low in sodium such as fruits, vegetables or a glass of milk.
So, you might be wondering, what are nitrates and why should I be concerned about them? Nitrates are compounds that occurs naturally in the earth and they are produced by bacteria. They are found in drinking water, some fruits and vegetables. They are also added to fertilizers and even to processed meats to act as a preservative. At low levels there are believed to be some benefits to consuming nitrates, but there is some concern (and controversy) over whether high levels of nitrates can cause harm. One concern is that nitrates added to processed meats could increase the risk of cancer. While some animal studies do suggest that high nitrate consumption is linked to increased risk of cancer, it is unclear whether this holds true for humans. For more information on nitrates, you can click here.
In my opinion, to be on the cautious side, it couldn’t hurt to try to choose deli meats and sausages that do not contain nitrates. After all, they do not naturally occur in meats, so there would be no harm in choosing a product that has fewer additives. Again, you can read labels to make sure there are no words on the ingredient label that include the word nitrate/nitrite (i.e. sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite). Also, many processed meats that do not contain nitrates will market that on the front of their packages. With Dietz & Watson or Boars Head, any of their “All Natural Products” are nitrate/nitrite free.
To sum things up, having a turkey sandwich at lunch can absolutely be part of a healthy diet, but you do want to think about which deli meats you are choosing. Trying a lower sodium version will be better than the regular version, but it is important to keep in mind that lower-sodium isn’t always low-sodium so you will want to keep the sodium content of the other foods down at that meal. Also, by choosing the “all natural” versions, you can eliminate some of the potentially harmful additives. If you want to go even more natural, try buying a rotisserie chicken or turkey and carving it down for lunch meat to be used throughout the week (just don’t forget to throw out the skin). This can be an affordable, and very tasty option.