I’ve been paying a premium price for Maple Leaf Natural Selections sliced ham, turkey, and chicken since they were introduced, in an effort to avoid nitrites. Maple Leaf Foods markets them as all natural. I was already skeptical about that claim, since the meat looks the same, tastes the same, and has a long shelf life like regular lunch meat. Last night, after testing by CBC Marketplace, it was revealed that Maple Leaf Natural Selections prepared meats contain nitrites.
On the Maple Leaf website, they state that “We removed artificial preservatives and replaced them with sea salt, lemon juice and cultured celery extract, which are natural preservatives.” It would be more accurate to state that cultured celery extract is a natural source of nitrite (celery is loaded with nitrate), or that they’re using nitrate derived from celery. When asked to compare cultured celery extract to sodium nitrate in this CBC news article, nutrition expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff says “for all intents and purposes it is bio-chemically identical.”
In response to the Marketplace findings, Randy Huffman, chief product safety officer with Maple Leaf Foods said “We care deeply about the integrity of the products that we produce and the labeling is accurate. Nitrite is very misunderstood. Nitrite is actually part of a healthy, balanced diet, it’s in a variety of foods that we eat every day.” and added that the company’s labels were developed in conjunction with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. However, the company subsequently sent an email to Marketplace advising that it would change its Natural Selections labels to include the fact that the products contain nitrite.
This statement was made by Maple Leaf Foods on its Facebook page:
Maple Leaf Natural Selections was developed because consumers told us they wanted products that contained simpler, fewer, more natural ingredients. We removed artificial preservatives and replaced them with natural ingredients. We took out sodium nitrite, sodium phosphate, erythorbate and potassium lactate and added lemon juice, vinegar, sea salt and cultured celery extract. Cultured celery extract is a natural source of nitrite. It is celery fermented with bacteria, similar to how yoghurt and beer is made.
Our labels identify all ingredients. Nitrite is an ingredient within an ingredient – in this case sea salt and cultured celery extract.
We care deeply about what consumers think and we’re changing our label to provide even more information. We have received approval from the CFIA to change the label on the front of our Maple Leaf Natural Selections / Schneiders Country Naturals packages to include No Preservatives Added* *Beyond those naturally occurring preservatives and nitrites in the ingredients. On the back panels we are adding Sea Salt and Cultured Celery Extract Contain Naturally Occurring Nitrites.
We are providing this extra information for interested consumers that goes well beyond regulatory requirements or the practice of most food companies. We expect to have these new labels in market within the next three months. (emphasis added)
This highlights an important issue affecting all consumers trying to avoid nitrates, and a life and death issue for Canadians with food allergies: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency only requires the top 8 allergens (and ingredients derived from) them to be disclosed by name. These top 8 allergens are dairy, egg, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.
So, when I read a label and I see “natural flavoring”, I can be fairly confident that if it were peanut derived, it would say that the product contains peanuts. Those allergic to nitrates aren’t so lucky. Their allergen can be referred to legally as “cultured celery extract” and the packaging can say “no nitrites added” since the nitrates are in the celery and nitrates aren’t a top 8 allergen.
I didn’t know that celery contains nitrate. Not everyone with a nitrate allergy would know this, and they could easily decide that because of Maple Leaf’s legally correct but misleading packaging that the product is safe for them to eat.
I wonder how many calls Maple Leaf customer service received from nitrate allergic consumers reporting allergic reactions. Is it worth it to expose consumers to these risks in an effort to sell an “all natural” product at a higher price? In my opinion, when allergic consumers can’t make informed choices, it is NOT worth the risk of allergic injury and death that may result.
Though I wish you had done so in the first place, thank you Maple Leaf Foods for deciding to change your Natural Selections packaging to disclose that these products contain nitrite. I just wish you had done so in the first place.
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