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Video: What's really in those cold cuts?

By Food Editor
TODAY
updated 12/27/2006 2:26:58 PM ET 2006-12-27T19:26:58

Cooked, sliced meats, also known as deli, lunch meats or cold cuts, are a boon to brown baggers looking for simple fillings for sandwiches, and easy-to-serve choices for parties and family gatherings. Basically, they’re just slices of sausages in one form or the other. You can buy them already sliced in vacuum packs or have them sliced to order at a deli counter. 

Take a look next time you are in the dairy department (where you can find these prepackaged and hanging on hooks) or in the ready to slice deli section, and you’ll find scores of varieties including: beerwurst, bologna, pepper loaf, olive loaf, capocolla, chicken breast, chicken roll, corned beef, Devon sausage, ham, head cheese (which isn’t cheese at all, but made from the head parts of a hog, which are cooked together with gelatin and spices), liverwurst, pastrami, proscuitto, roast beef, salami, pepperoni, summer sausage, turkey breast and turkey roll. If you are unfamiliar with a type of deli meat, ask for a sample. Sometimes the flavoring or texture might be a surprise (either good or bad) and in this category it is always wise to try a sample before you buy!

The five things you need to know:

1. There are three types of cold cut meat and poultry products: Whole cuts of meats or poultry that are cooked and then sliced (examples: roast beef, corned beef, turkey breast), sectioned and formed products and processed products.

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Whole cuts are exactly what they sound like — a section of meat or poultry that has been cooked, possibly flavored with salt, spices or sugars that is then sliced, typically the more expensive type of cold cuts.

Sectioned and formed meat products are restructured meat products, such as multi-part turkey breasts or cooked hams. They are prepared from chunks or pieces of meat and are bonded together to form a single piece. The substances that bind these together are non-meat additives, meat emulsions and extracted myofibrillar proteins. Typically they are produced by extracting the meat proteins (by adding salt and massaging or tumbling the meat, which brings these “sticky” proteins to the surface) or by adding non-meat proteins. Myosin is the major protein that is extracted. The meat becomes soft and pliable and is then shaped through the application of force using different molds or casings. It is then cooked to coagulate the proteins, which bind the chunks of meat together in its new shape.

Processed meats (sausages) are the majority of what we call cold cuts. About 15% of all meat produced in the U.S. is used to make these which number over 200 varieties. Sausage manufacturing includes any type of meat that is chopped, seasoned and formed into a symmetrical shape, for example, bologna. There are two methods for preparing the ingredients: emulsion, where the meat is finely chopped and the hydrophobic proteins react with fat, the opposite protein, and the hydrophilic react with water to hold fat in the solution (bologna, Vienna sausages, hot dogs) and non emulsion, which is typically for coarser grinds. The same basic technology is used as for sectioned and formed meat products, but with no tumbling and massaging required. There are several meat sources for sausages including beef, pork, mutton, veal, and poultry; meat by-products are also used sometimes, like lips, tripe, pork stomachs and heart.

2. Read the fine print.
One of the questions I’m most asked has to do with “nitrates” that are listed in the ingredients on some cold cut packages.

Sodium nitrite helps prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism in humans and is also used alone or in conjunction with sodium nitrate as a color fixative in cured meat and poultry products (bologna, hot dogs, bacon). During the cooking process, nitrites combine with amines naturally present in meat to form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds. It is also suspected that nitrites can combine with amines in the human stomach to form N-nitroso compounds. These compounds are known carcinogens and have been associated with cancer of the oral cavity, urinary bladder, esophagus, stomach and brain.

Research in Sweden found that Swedes who ate on average three ounces of processed meat each day had a 15 percent greater chance of developing stomach cancer than those who consumed two ounces or less. Results of a study by the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and the University of Southern California reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (2005;97:1458-65) of 190,000 people, ages 45 to 75, for seven years state that those who ate the most processed meat (bacon, ham, cold cuts) had a 68% higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who ate the least. “Most” was defined as at least 0.6 ounce processed meat, one ounce beef or 0.3 ounce pork per 1,000 calories consumed.

Dieticians suggest that you can help reduce the possible cancer-causing effects of sodium nitrite by consuming protective antioxidants before meals, such as vitamin C and vitamin E. But, remember, no vitamin offers 100% protection.

Here’s a glossary of some other ingredients from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service Labeling Regulations:

Added solutions (with juices): Products with added solutions that are cooked in an impervious bag and as a result of the cooking contain free flowing juices that are not drained, should be labeled to reflect the solution and the juices, e.g. “Roast Beef Contains up to 12 percent solution with Juices.”

Added solutions (poultry) (boneless): Boneless poultry products containing solutions can be labeled similarly to the PFF language for cured pork products, that is — “Cured Chicken and Water Product X percent of Weight is Added Ingredients.” The terms — “with natural juices” or “water added” — are not permitted since both terms do not adequately convey the amount of solution added to the poultry products. Additionally, the term — “with natural juices” is misleading when a solution is introduced into poultry product by means of marinating, soaking, or injecting.

BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), tocopherols (vitamin E): Antioxidants that help maintain the appeal and wholesome qualities of food by retarding rancidity in fats, sausages and dried meats, as well as helping to protect some of the natural nutrients in foods, such as vitamin A.

Bromelin: An enzyme that can dissolve or degrade the proteins collagen and elastin to soften meat and poultry tissue. It is derived from pineapple fruit and leaves, and is used as a meat tenderizer.

Carrageenan: Seaweed is the source of this additive. It may be used in products as binder.

Chemical free: Beware, this term is not allowed to be put on any meats or poultry labels.

Citric acid: Widely distributed in nature in both plants and animals. It can be used as an additive to protect the fresh color of meat cuts during storage. Citric acid also helps protect flavor and increases the effectiveness of antioxidants.

Corn syrup: Sugar that is derived from the hydrolysis of corn starch. Uses include flavoring agent and sweetener in meat and poultry products.

Emulsifier: Substance added to products, such as meat spreads, to prevent separation of product components to ensure consistency. Examples of these types of additives include lecithin, and mono- and di-glycerides.

Ficin: Enzyme derived from fig trees that is used as a meat tenderizer.

Gelatin: Thickener from collagen, which is derived from the skin, tendons, ligaments or bones of livestock. It may be used in canned hams or jellied meat products.

Humectant: Substance added to foods to help retain moisture and soft texture. An example is glycerine, which may be used in dried meat snacks.

Hydrolyzed (source) protein: Flavor enhancers that can be used in meat and poultry products. They are made from protein obtained from a plant source such as soy or wheat, or from an animal source, such as milk. The source used must be identified on the label.

Modified food starch: Starch that has been chemically altered to improve its thickening properties. Before the starch is modified, it is separated from the protein through isolation techniques; therefore, the source of the starch used is not required on the label.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG): MSG is a flavor enhancer. It comes from a common amino acid, glutamic acid, and must be declared as monosodium glutamate on meat and poultry labels.

Papain: An enzyme that can dissolve or degrade the proteins collagen and elastin to soften meat and poultry tissue. It is derived from the tropical papaya tree and is used as a meat tenderizer.

Phosphates: The two beneficial effects of phosphates in meat and poultry products are moisture retention and flavor protection. An example is the use of phosphates in the curing of ham where approved additives are sodium or potassium salts of tripolyphosphate, hexametaphosphate, acid pyrophosphate or orthophosphates, declared as “phosphates” on labels.

Propyl gallate: Used as an antioxidant to prevent rancidity in products such as rendered fats or pork sausage. It can be used in combination with antioxidants such as BHA and BHT.

Rancid/rancidity: Oxidation/breakdown of fat that occurs naturally causing undesirable smell and taste. BHA/BHT and tocopherols are used to keep fats from becoming rancid.

Sodium caseinate: Used as a binder in products such as frankfurters and stews.

Sodium erythorbate: The sodium salt of erythorbic acid, a highly refined food-grade chemical closely related to vitamin C, synthesized from sugar, and used as a color fixative in preparing cured meats. (Note: Erythorbate is not earthworms. Perhaps the spelling or pronunciation has contributed to this misconception because the hotline receives many calls related to this concern.)

Sodium nitrite: Used alone or in conjunction with sodium nitrate as a color fixative in cured meat and poultry products (bologna, hot dogs, bacon). Helps prevent growth of Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism in humans.

Sugar (sucrose): Used as sweetener in an endless list of food products.

Texturizers/stabilizers/thickeners: Used in foods to help maintain uniform texture or consistency. These are substances that are commonly called binders. Examples are gelatin and carrageenan.

Whey, dried: The dried form of a component of milk that remains after cheese making. Can be used as a binder or extender in various meat products, such as sausage and stews.

My recommendation for those people who want to avoid any chemicals or artificial ingredients is to buy certified organic lunch meats, which typically cost between 10 and 40% more, but are a guaranteed way to avoid these ingredients. However, since organic products don’t contain these preservatives be sure to store them properly and consumer them within one or two days.

3. The danger of cold cuts: Listeria
No doubt you’ll remember the story about some lunch meat products being recalled for Listeria contamination. It happened almost ten years ago when 35 million pounds of hot dogs and processed luncheon meats were recalled following an outbreak when almost 100 people in 22 states became ill, and 20 people died. It’s a serious food safety issue that you need to pay attention to. Since the outbreak, regulations have been changed and include the safety precaution that food processors must now hold more product, and for a longer time, if a sample tests positive for Listeria, to prevent the distribution of potentially contaminated foods.

Listeriosis is an infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, with an estimated 2,500 persons in the U.S. becoming seriously ill and 500 of these resulting in death each year. The disease affects primarily pregnant women (who are 20 times more likely to become infected and develop a severe illness), newborns and adults with weakened immune systems. The symptoms include fever, muscle aches and sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea. If infection spreads to the nervous system, symptoms such as headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance or convulsions can occur. Infected pregnant women may experience only a mild, flu-like illness; however, infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth, premature delivery or infection of the newborn. Healthy adults and children occasionally get infected with Listeria, but they rarely become seriously ill.

Listeria is killed by pasteurization and cooking; however, in certain ready-to-eat foods such as hot dogs and deli meats, contamination may occur after cooking but before packaging.

To protect against listeriosis, the government advises consumers to thoroughly cook raw animal products, thoroughly wash all food that is to be eaten raw like fruits and vegetables, keep foods to be eaten raw separate from uncooked meats, and wash hands, knives and cutting boards with hot soapy water. Also, be sure to watch out for the juices from processed meats and sausages; it can transmit Listeria, so wash with hot water and soap anything that comes in contact with the juices.

Note: On Aug. 19, 2006, the Food and Drug Administration approved LMP 102, a bacteriophage-based product from Intralytix Inc., as a food additive to be sprayed on cold cuts before packaging. The bacteriophages are added to defend the meats from Listeria monocytogenes, the phages infect the bacteria, binding to the host and effectively killing all strains of Listeria.  

4. How much are you paying for water?
It is perfectly legal for food companies to add a water, sodium and water or even water and spices solution to many of the lunch meats including ham, roast beef and turkey, but they must be labeled clearly and state the exact percentage of solution that has been added — for example, “10% water-added” or “Contains Up To 10% Added Moisture,” which means you are paying for one pound of water for every ten pounds of meat that you buy.

Since food is sold by weight it’s important to read the labels, not only for the declaration of how much water or other solution has been added, but to see where “water” is listed in the ingredients.

5. Deli meats are highly perishable.
No food lasts forever, especially when it comes to cold cuts. While some of these products have natural or chemical preservatives to extend shelf life, packaged cold cuts once opened will only last three to five days. Cold cuts sliced fresh from the deli 1-3 days, if stored properly. Be sure to use an airtight plastic bag to store them and put them in the coldest part of the refrigerator.

Freshness dating of processed meats is a voluntary program and not mandated by the federal government. However, if there is a date on the package, by law, it must state clearly what the date signifies:

“Sell by” date means nothing more than telling the store how long to display the product for sale. Never buy the product after this date.

“Best if used by” date means the flavor, taste and quality of the product will be at its optimum before this date. It has nothing to do with freshness or safety.

“Use by” date means just that — don’t consumer the product after this date.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.

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