It’s tough to be a school-lunch-making parent these days. Between satisfying picky eaters and complying with food allergy rules, the one non-offensive fallback has always been a cold-cut sandwich. But even that has been under scrutiny of late. “Many of these products are high in fat and sodium and made of poor-quality protein,” says Susin Cadman, a registered dietitian in Brandon, Man., who suggests that the lunch-bag favourite be an occasional treat rather than a staple. Plus, recent studies by Harvard University and the World Cancer Research Fund have linked heavy intakes — 50 g or more a day — of processed meats to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. So what’s the parent of a deli-meat-loving kid to do?
Find Leaner Meat Alternatives
Processed meats (any meat preserved by salting, curing or adding chemical preserv-atives) are a source of saturated fat, which can raise bad cholesterol, increasing the risk for heart disease, a concern even for kids. Foods considered low in fat have less than 3 g of fat per serving. (One leading brand of bologna has 15 g per serving.) So read the label or ask the person behind the deli counter about lower-fat options such as lean ham, roast beef, turkey or chicken breast. Light or fat-free versions of fatty cold cuts are also available.
Reduce Their Salt Intake
Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating defines a serving of luncheon meat as just 75 g (about two slices). Any more and your child could be consuming more than the maximum recommended level of sodium intake for the entire day: 1,500 mg for kids ages one to three, 1,900 mg for four- to eight-year-olds, 2,200 mg for kids ages nine to 13 and 2,300 mg for those 14 and older. (One hundred grams of one popular brand of black forest deli ham has a whopping 1,180 g of sodium.) Exceeding these upper intake limits can increase a child’s risk of developing high blood pressure, itself a risk for stroke, heart and kidney disease. Keep the amount in check by looking for varieties low in sodium (140 mg of sodium or less per serving) or reduced in sodium (at least 25 percent less than the regular product).
Understand the Effect of Nitrate/Nitrite
Nitrates and nitrites are added to inhibit the growth of bacteria, which cause botulism poisoning, and also to add flavouring (in the form of sodium and potassium salts) and a pink colour to the meat — without it, hot dogs would look grey. “Nitrates and nitrites alone are not the problem,” says Cadman. “The concern is that in the stomach they combine with the components of protein, called amines, to form nitrosamines, which is a carcinogen [cancer-causing agent] in animals.” Sodium erthorbate, a food-grade chemical similar to vitamin C, is now added to processed meats to inhibit the conversion of nitrates/nitrites into nitrosamines. Incidentally, adding foods rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, cherry tomatoes and red pepper strips to your plate alongside your sandwich can also help reduce the formation of nitrosamines. While Health Canada regulates the concentrations of sodium nitrate/nitrite used in meat products, Cadman suggests parents look for nitrate/nitrite-free options. A number of grocery stores now carry nitrate-free brands such as Wellshire Farms, Lilydale and Maple Leaf. Or cook your own chicken or turkey for dinner and use the leftovers in sandwiches.
Consider Healthier Substitutes
Soy-based meats have added flavour and spices to make them taste like the real thing but are nitrate and nitrite-free. Soy is a complete protein, providing essential amino acids needed by the body with the added benefit of little or no saturated fat.
Always Read Before Before Labels
Check the best-before date on the package — anything bought past that will not have optimal quality and may not be safe to eat. According to the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, once opened, prepackaged deli meats should be eaten within three days. The same goes for cold cuts from the deli counter. Both should be stored in an airtight bag in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Bought too much? Wrap and store the extra meat in an airtight bag or container for up to three months in your freezer.