For Hot Dogs, a Push for Truthful Labels
If there is no such thing as a healthy hot dog, how do you limit the damage at this
weekend’s weenie roast?
weekend’s weenie roast?
Don’t count on the label to help much. Those pricey “natural” and “organic” hot dogs often contain just as much or more of the cancer-linked preservatives nitrate and nitrite as that old-fashioned Oscar Mayer wiener.
And almost no one knows it because of arcane federal rules that make the labels on natural and organic hot dogs, luncheon meats and bacon virtually impossible to decipher when it comes to preservatives. That includes products made from beef, pork, turkey and chicken.
“If you actually surveyed consumers going out of their way to buy no-nitrate products, they’d be very surprised to learn that there’s plenty of nitrates in there,” said Bruce Aidells, a chef and cookbook author. “It’s very misleading.” In a role reversal, food manufacturers are now pushing the federal government for more truthful labeling that would allow them to tell consumers clearly that some products contain nitrate and nitrite, just from natural rather than synthetic sources. The current rules bizarrely require products that derive the preservatives from natural sources to prominently place the words “Uncured” and “No nitrates or nitrites added” on the label even though they are cured and do contain the chemicals.
“Nitrite is nitrite and consumers should be aware of what they’re eating,” said Marji McCullough, director of nutritional epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, which recommends that people reduce consumption of processed meats because of studies that link them to colon cancer.
The United States Department of Agriculture says it is aware of the labeling problem and may take a fresh look. “We feel strongly that labels should help consumers make informed decisions and we are open to reviewing additional information to enhance accuracy in labeling,” said a spokesman for the department. Nitrate and nitrite have been used for centuries to cure meat, giving products like hot dogs, bacon and ham their characteristic flavor and color and killing the bacteria that causes botulism. Today, conventional meat packers typically use a synthesized version known as sodium nitrite.
The words to look for:
Celery seed extract, celery extract, celery juice, celery powder, celery as a preservative...
But companies that label their products natural or organic must use natural sources of the preservatives. They usually employ celery powder or celery juice, which are high in nitrate. A bacterial culture is used to process celery into nitrites. The resulting chemicals are virtually identical to their synthetic cousins. When the products are packaged, both conventional and natural products contain residual amounts.
A study published earlier this year in The Journal of Food Protection found that natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrite that conventional hot dogs contained. Natural bacon had from about a third as much nitrite as a conventional brand to more than twice as much.
The current U.S.D.A. labeling rules require natural products to indicate there may be naturally occurring nitrate or nitrite, but it often appears in small print. When combined with the more prominently displayed “No nitrates or nitrites added” banner, many consumers are left scratching their heads.
“The most consistent feedback we get is, ‘I don’t understand what that means,’ ” said Linda Boardman, president of Applegate Farms, the leading brand of natural and organic processed meats. “It’s confusing and it’s not adding anything to the consumer decision-making process.”
Applegate and other natural companies have proposed alternate wording to the U.S.D.A. in the past without success. They say they are confident their products offer enough other benefits — all natural ingredients, meeting the standards for the humane treatment of animals, for example — that it is best to be upfront with consumers about the preservatives. Ms. Boardman said tests showed the amount of nitrite and nitrate in Applegate products was similar to conventional brands.
Consumer advocates agree the problem does not lie with the meat companies. “We see the problem lying squarely with U.S.D.A.,” said Urvashi Rangan, technical policy director of Consumers Union.
Since the 1970s, concerns about the health effects of nitrate and nitrite have focused on the potential for nitrite to combine with meat protein to form carcinogenic substances called nitrosamines.
The U.S.D.A. responded by limiting the amount of nitrate and nitrite that goes into processed meats, and today they contain far less than they did 40 years ago.
But since the health concerns first emerged, scientists have gained more understanding of the role of nitrate and nitrite in human health and have discovered the preservatives also have benefits, for example, in the healthy functioning of the cardiovascular and immune systems.
Some in the meat industry have seized on these discoveries to dismiss as outdated the link between nitrite in processed meat and cancer. They insist processed meats are safe.
But many scientists say the evidence of health risks remains persuasive. While the occasional hot dog or piece of bacon is probably O.K., they point out that high levels of salt and saturated fat in processed meats also contribute to health problems.
“What’s very clear is that consuming processed meats is related to higher risk of diabetes, heart attacks and colon cancer,” said Dr. Walter C. Willet, chairman of the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health. “If you tweak the cured meat a little bit like some of these new products, that’s no guarantee that’s going to make it any better.”
And that weekend weenie roast? George L. Siemon , the chief executive of Organic Prairie, an organic meat processor, said that when he tried selling meats with no nitrates from any source, they didn’t taste the same and no one wanted them.
“We tried the non-anything,” he said. “It just didn’t work for the customer.”
Why not make your own!
Make your own: My recipe for chicken franks