A turkey or ham sandwich on whole wheat – what could be wrong with that? You didn’t use mayo or tons of cheese. You even added lettuce and tomato – a serving (?) of veggies. It’s portable. It’s low in fat. A healthy choice, you decide. Think again.

I am not maligning your deli sandwich to push a plant-based diet (although, it is a good reason). I just ask that you be aware what the simple mainstay of your lunchbox could be doing to your long-term health.

Fresh meat has just one ingredient (or it should): the meat. It has a short shelf life – only 2 to 3 days – so it isn’t as convenient as processed. To get luncheon meat to sit on the shelf for days or weeks, it is pumped full of sodium nitrate and sodium nitrate. Food manufacturers like these additives because they keep the meat looking pink and “fresh” while providing that characteristic “deli” flavor. These additives don’t really belong in your body, however. The Center for Science in the Public Interest points out that several studies have linked consumption of cured meats containing nitrites to various types of cancer in animals. When manufacturers boast their processed meats are free of these additives, beware. The New York Times revealed in 2011 that “natural” meats could have as much as 10 times the amount of nitrite as other products because of hidden sources including celery juice or celery powder. Even if your processed meats are free of nitrates and nitrites, they are likely high in sodium and fat.

 If the scare of additives in your meat doesn’t dissuade you, how about a systematic review and meta-analysis of more than 1,540 studies in a 2010 issue of “Circulation” in which researchers found that the consumption of processed meats is associated with a higher incidence of coronary heart disease and diabetes? Is a little convenience really worth it? By the way, processed meats include bacon, sausage, pepperoni, beef jerky, deli meats (packaged and sliced at the counter), hot dogs, meats in those scary Lunchable trays and meat used in many pre-made ravioli (Chef Boyardee, anyone).

I won’t leave you with this info and not give you alternatives, however. Trade in your ham and turkey for healthier lunch-box options like:

  • Stuffed whole wheat pitas. Use plain roasted chicken, sliced tomato, butter lettuce and avocado; fat-free, low-sodium refried beans, romaine, salsa and cheddar; hummus, cucumbers and roasted red peppers; sliced egg, mustard and spinach leaves; grilled veggies and avocado; or natural peanut butter and pear slices.
  •  A portable, grain-based salad. As much as I like greens, they don’t always fill me up. Mix cooked quinoa or brown rice with rinsed chickpeas, halved grape tomatoes, lemon juice, chopped parsley and pinenuts. Combine couscous with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, bell pepper, mint, lemon juice and olive oil. Top with feta cheese. 
  • Bring leftovers – plain and simple. Last night’s healthy pasta with vegetables, black bean chili or roast chicken (homemade, please – rotisserie chicken is usually injected with sodium and preservatives) with brown rice and steamed broccoli.
  • For sides, add baby carrots, apples with a packet of natural peanut butter, red bell pepper strips, fresh fruit, berries, yogurt (soy, coconut, or dairy…if you must), whole-wheat crackers (Triscuits, not Wheat Thins), raw nuts, raisins, dried cranberries, trail mix or a homemade side salad.

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One Response


  1. Scott Davis on 13 Jan 2012

    Good information. We have been buying deli meats at either Whole Foods or Sunflower Market. Both of these stores say that their meats have no preservatives but I have wondered if there are other reasons for concern?


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