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Is Lunch Meat Safe For Kids To Eat? Science Explains

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A while ago, I was in line at my local deli when a woman tapped me on my shoulder to compliment my beautiful toddler, only to be horrified when my deli guy handed my daughter a turkey sample. What's the big deal? Is lunch meat safe for kids? The lady at the deli looked as though I'd just allowed someone to feed my kid arsenic.

I knew all the dangers of eating cold lunch meat when I was pregnant. I was warned by every baby book and obstetrician to avoid it because of the risk of the listeria monocytes, which may be present in the meat if not handled and heated properly. However, like most things, it's something that's not really thought of after you give birth. I mean, turkey sounds healthy, right? And a pizza isn't a pizza without pepperoni and sausage. However, it stands to reason that if it was considered unsafe for pregnancy, there's got to be some sort of correlation of safety for children, much like aspirin, alcohol, and diet soda — or maybe I'm just a worrier. OK, I know I'm a worrier, but sometimes, it's a justifiable concern. So, is lunch meat safe for kids to eat, or should you stick to peanut butter and jelly in their lunch box?

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As it turns out, there is reason to worry and reason to rejoice. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), processed meat, including salami, pastrami, hot dogs, and bologna, are carcinogens which are in the same category (but not as harsh as ) tobacco. They often contain something called nitrates or nitrites which are proven carcinogens, and likely very unhealthy. WHO noted that eating 50 grams of processed meat per day (about four strips of bacon or one hot dog) can increase your risk of colorectal cancer from 5 percent to 6 percent. That's not all. A study completed by Food Control showed that listeria in processed meat occurs at an even higher rate than previously thought, and it's a dangerous monocyte that is difficult to treat.

Luckily, if you store your lunch meat safely — with proper refrigeration — and heat it before serving it to young children, (or keeping it in a cold, insulated lunch box for school-aged kids), listeria is avoidable, according to The San Francisco Gate. Without the worry of contamination, you're only left with, well, everything else.

While your child probably isn't eating 50 grams of processed meat every day, there's more to consider. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, kids (and adults) who eat processed meat are generally less healthy than those who don't. While they may be getting more protein in their diet, they're also getting a lot more fat and salt, and some scary extras. Thankfully, all is not lost. There are good alternatives out there for people who love the taste and convenience of lunch meat. When asked "is lunch meat safe for kids," the doctors at Dr. Sears.com wrote that while much of the mass-produced lunch meat isn't something you should serve your child if you can avoid it, all-natural, nitrate-free, low-fat options are out there — many of which are organic and very tightly regulated.

Foods like freshly sliced turkey or chicken breast are not only a good choice, they can also be a very healthy and filling option in your kid's lunch box. I know that my daughter is a real sucker for the rosemary turkey at the local Brooklyn hipster deli that roasts their turkey breast in-house and slices it fresh. I don't hesitate to allow her to sample a taste at the store. I never have, and for the most part, there's no reason you should, either.

*Correction:

Previously published version noted processed meat as carcinogenic as tobacco, but has been changed to note its only in the same category of carcinogen but not as carcinogenic as per WHO clarification published this week.