Over Memorial Day weekend, I stood in line for 10 minutes at my local grocery store‘s deli counter. I saw customer after customer load up on salami, honey ham, and smoked turkey for the holiday weekend. (Guess they haven‘t heard about the latest warning about processed meats, sodium phosphate, and one type of deadly cancer. I'll tell you all about the new report in a moment.)

There are probably 50 different types of lunch meat sold at my grocery store. But I‘ll only buy one. So when they finally called my number, I asked the clerk for a pound of their natural
turkey. She held up a famous brand and asked if that‘s what I wanted. "This brand doesn't contain any preservatives or artificial ingredients, see," she said and pointed at the deli meat.

Okay, I said, but I don‘t trust labels. I want to see what‘s in it. (I could hear the anxious customers grumble behind me!)

She flipped the turkey breast over so I could read the ingredient list. And there you go, sure enough, it said "sodium phosphate."

Sodium phosphate is not the same as sodium nitrite. That‘s true. But it does help to keep deli meat looking fresh, moist, and tender. That‘s why I consider it a preservative and won‘t ever buy meat that contains it.

Here‘s why...

As you can probably guess, sodium phosphate contains a lot of sodium. It actually contains much more sodium than table salt. So if you wonder why your deli meat looks moist, it‘s because they treat it with lots of salt so it will hold lots of water.

But sodium phosphate also makes you retain water. This puts a strain on your kidneys. It makes them work harder. That‘s why people with kidney problems shouldn't eat deli meat. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, sodium phosphate can actually cause kidney damage.

According to the NIH web site:

"Sodium phosphate has caused serious kidney damage in some people. In some cases, this damage was permanent, and some people whose kidneys were damaged had to be treated with dialysis (treatment to remove waste from the blood when the kidneys are not working well). Some people developed kidney damage within a few days after their treatment, and others developed kidney damage up to several months after their treatment."

But sodium phosphate isn't the biggest problem lurking in your lunch meat. Most lunch meat is treated with sodium nitrite as well.

Why are nitrites so bad?

Salt has been used for centuries to cure and cook meat. And sodium nitrite is just another form of salt. It helps to give processed meat an appealing pink color. It adds to the taste. And it helps to retard the growth of bacteria.

But here's the problem...

Inside your body, nitrites turn into N-nitroso compounds. We already know these compounds cause cancer in test animals.

In addition, numerous studies link processed meat (high in nitrites) with cancer in humans. In 2006, Swedish researchers found that eating just one ounce of processed meat a day increases your risk of stomach cancer up to 38 percent.


In 2005, U.S. researchers looked at 190,000 men and women between the ages 45 and 75. They found that volunteers who ate high amounts processed meat that contained sodium phosphate and/ or sodium nitrite were 68 percent more likely to get pancreatic cancer than those who ate the least.

And guess what? If you eat 1.2 ounces of processed meat a day (just a slice or two of smoked turkey), you eat "high" amounts, according to this study.

But there‘s more. The evidence linking processed meat with colon cancer troubles me the most.

The processed meat connection to cancer

According to a new report by the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research, we can prevent almost half of the colon cancer cases in this country. All we have to do is make simple changes to our lifestyle. These simple changes include:

  • Eating more fiber-rich foods
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Staying physically active
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Plus, researchers found a clear and consistent connection between the kind of meat you eat and colon cancer. Specifically, the researchers cited 24 studies linking colon cancer to processed meat.

Researchers found that eating 3.5 ounces per day of processed meat increases your colon cancer risk by 36 percent (compared to those who don‘t eat processed meat). Plus, if you eat 7 ounces every day, your colon cancer risk is about 70 percent greater than those who don‘t ever eat processed meat, which contains sodium phosphate.

Now, if you like the occasional steak, here‘s good news...

According to their research, eating 3.5 ounces of red meat every day raises your colon cancer risk by 17 percent higher than non-meat eaters. (Again, to put this into perspective, 3.5 ounces equates to a modest size cheeseburger or a petite filet of steak. It‘s about the size of your fist.) Plus, the more you eat, the greater your risk.


Researchers found very little risk for men and women who eat less than 18 ounces of red meat per week. And this is exactly what I've always suggested in my Guide to Good Health. Red meat is beneficial in small amounts. Eat a serving of it once or twice a week and you‘ll be fine. Just make sure it is hormone-free, antibiotic-free red meat.

And remember, there is additive-free lunch meat out there. Just don‘t trust the deli counter clerk. Ask to see the list of ingredients and boycott sodium phosphate...even if it is a holiday weekend and there‘s a long line of customers behind you. It pays to be particular. Hormel and Jennie-O both make a line of nitrite-free lunch meat.

The other option is even better. Buy a whole turkey breast and roast it at home. Slice it thin and you‘ll have the most amazing turkey for sandwiches all week. Add a juicy tomato and an onion and I'm in heaven.