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Deli Meats and Cancer: What You Should Know

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Imagine opening up your refrigerator door and finding a huge sign:

“Surgeon General’s Warning:

Quitting deli meat now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.”


You may think I am exaggerating about those beloved processed meats, but I’m not.

The World Health Organization ranks bacon, ham and sausages alongside asbestos, arsenic and cigarettes as a major cause of cancer.

I’m thinking now you don’t want to be like an Oscar Mayer wiener after all.

To know how to combat the cancer-causing risk of processed meats, it will help to understand more about what nitrates are, where they are found, and then I’ll provide tips to help you out, even if you decide to continue eating processed meats.

Let’s start with the basics.

What are nitrates and where are they found?

Nitrates occur naturally in our body and in soil, air and water. They are also added to foods in the manufacturing process as a way to extend shelf-life of certain products by stopping the growth of bacteria.

Vegetables are very high in nitrates when compared with other food groups. It’s estimated that 75–80% of our total daily intake of nitrates comes from vegetables, compared with only about 5–10% from drinking water. (Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition), 2003)


Does this mean we should stop eating vegetables?


Top Nitrate Containing Plants:

  • Beets
  • Celery
  • Lettuce
  • Radishes
  • Spinach

(Afr J Trad Complement Altern Med, 2017)


Not at all!

When we eat nitrates, our saliva converts them to nitrites. Nitrites can be beneficial to us, supporting a healthy blood pressure for example. Nitrites can also harm us when nitrosamines are formed, usually when meats are exposed to high heat cooking methods like grilling or smoking. Vegetables, on the other hand, even cooked at a high temperature, are not a problem. Manufacturers also put nitrates and nitrites in processed meats to keep them from spoiling too quickly.

Nitrosamines, then, are the real culprit when it comes to cancer risk (primarily gastric and esophageal cancer but also bladder, breast, lung and other cancers).

So, what can you do to decrease the formation of nitrosamines?

  • Microwave, rather than broil, your bacon. This cooking method produces fewer nitrosamines.
  • Be sure to add tomato slices to your ham sandwich or top salsa on your eggs and bacon breakfast. Tomatoes and other citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges, lemons, etc.) contain vitamin C, which is an antioxidant that stops the formation of nitrites to nitrosamines.
  • Drink clove or peppermint tea with your meal. Clove and peppermint contain the highest levels of polyphenols, which have been shown to protect against DNA damage caused by nitrosamines. I personally toured the Celestial Seasonings tea factory and literally had my breath away by the potency and aroma of Celestial Seasonings Peppermint Tea!
  • Consider adding turmeric. Curcuma root powder (turmeric) is very effective in stopping formation of nitrosamines but it tends to be poorly absorbed. According to an independent agency reviewing spices, McCormick Ground Turmeric had the highest concentration of active ingredients and cost less than other brands. The best organic choice was Simply Organic. Doctor’s Best High Absorption Curcumin tested better than most for absorption and can be conveniently taken with or without a meal.
  • Look for “no added nitrates” on processed meat packages. Be aware that if the manufacturer uses celery juice or powder as the nitrate source, it is possible that you might be consuming more nitrates than a processed meat preserved with nitrates.
  • And finally, and you knew this one was coming…avoid the risk altogether by choosing unprocessed meats, poultry, and fish. Who likes hot dogs anyway?

Peppermint Tea Celestial Seasonings
Celestial Seasonings Tea Herb Peppermint

Doctor’s Best Curcumin
Doctor’s Best Curcumin from Turmeric Root, Non-GMO, Gluten Free, Soy Free, Joint Support, 500mg Caps with C3 Complex & BioPerine, 120 Capsules

McCormick Ground Turmeric
McCormick Ground Turmeric, 0.95 oz

Simply Organic Turmeric
Simply Organic Ground Turmeric Root, Certified Organic | 2.38 oz | Curcuma longa L.