Manufacturers use nitrates to keep roast beef and other meats shelf-stable and free of botulism-causing bacteria. By countering the oxidizing effect of oxygen, nitrates also help preserve the pink color you are accustomed to seeing in the meat. Without nitrates, the roast beef from the deli would be an unappetizing shade of brownish-gray. You can buy roast beef without nitrates in specialty stores or you can make your own.
Which Roast Beef Contains Nitrates
Nitrates are in some roast beef you buy at the deli counter or in the cold case at grocery stores. A restaurant's roast beef sandwiches may also contain the additive. The only way to be sure the roast beef you buy has nitrates is to check the label. Look for labels that say "nitrate-free."
Nitrate-Free Roast Beef
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved the addition of nitrates and nitrites in food, but too much can be toxic. Some studies, such as one published in the August 2011 issue of "American Journal of Epidemiology," link eating processed meats to an increased risk of cancer. Some health food stores sell nitrate-free roast beef. Be aware nitrate-free roast beef may still appear pinkish and may have a longer shelf life because food producers add celery juice to the meat. Celery juice naturally contains high levels of nitrates.
Fresh Roast Beef
Some natural or gourmet food stores roast whole cuts of beef and slice it to order for fresh roast beef. This roast beef does not contain nitrates, but should also be eaten within a day or two of purchase. This fresh roast beef costs more because it is highly perishable. Again, ask the deli counter staff about preparation methods and the ingredients if you're trying to avoid nitrates.
Make Your Own
Make your own homemade roast beef to ensure you have a nitrate-free version. Use a round cut of beef and rub it liberally with seasonings, such as kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, garlic and onion powder and dried oregano, as well as olive oil. Roast the beef slowly in a 300-degree Fahrenheit oven for several hours until the internal temperature registers 145 F. Once the meat comes out of the oven, rest it at least 10 minutes before slicing. Slice thinly using a deli slicer or a sharp, serrated knife across the grain to keep the juices in the meat.
- American Journal of Epidemiology: Pancreatic Cancer and Exposure to Dietary Nitrate and Nitrite in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study
- Journal of Natural Food and Health: Nitrate-cured Meats: Salami, Hot Dogs, Lunch Meats, Etc.
- Today: 5 Things You Need to Know About Deli Meats
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: Safe Cooking Temperatures
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