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Putting together a decent lunch for school or work can leave many of us a little exasperated. Maybe you're not fond of leftovers in your lunch bag. Perhaps you've taken one trip too many to the food court.

Could be that most of us are too pressed for time to put together a fresh lunch. So we resort to the quick and easy — which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

There's a lot more choice in pre-packaged foods, and if you pay attention to the nutrition labels, you can find nutritious options.

But there is a cost. You may be giving up fresh ingredients for more calories than you bargained for, higher sodium content and a list of ingredients that leaves you scratching your head.

We're looking at a number of popular products that wind up in lunch bags across the country and examining what's in them. We're neither endorsing nor condemning these products; we're just explaining what the ingredients are and how they're dealt with by Canada's product labelling regulations.

What's in it: Maple Leaf Cooked Ham

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Ham: Cured meat from a pig. The Canadian Food and Drug Regulations define meat as "the edible part of the skeletal muscle of an animal that was healthy at the time of slaughter, or muscle that is found in the tongue, diaphragm, heart or esophagus, and may contain accompanying and overlying fat together with the portions of bone, skin, sinew, nerve and blood vessels that normally accompany the muscle tissue and are not separated from it in the process of dressing, but does not include muscle found in the lips, snout, scalp or ears."

The regulations also say that prepared ham may contain gelatin.

Salt: Government regulation say that salt must be "crystalline sodium chloride," but can contain the following anti-caking agents: "calcium aluminum silicate, calcium phosphate tribasic, calcium silicate, calcium stearate, magnesium carbonate, magnesium silicate, magnesium stearate, silicon dioxide and sodium aluminum silicate, the total amount not to exceed one per cent."

Two slices of cooked ham have 770 mg of sodium, nearly a third, 32 per cent, of the recommended daily allowance.

Sodium phosphate: This chemical used in processed food as an emulsifier (to mix oil and water together), to regulate acidity and as a preservative to maintain colour and flavour. It comes it two forms in prepared meat: dibasic (Na2HPO4) and monobasic (NaH2PO4).

In much higher concentrations that would ever appear in processed meat, sodium phosphate is prescribed as a laxative.

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Dextrose: Dextrose is glucose, a naturally occurring sugar. It's used in meat curing because it produces a sweet flavour and brownish colour.

Dextrose is the naturally occurring "right-handed" form of glucose, R-glucose, as distinguished from "left-handed" L-glucose, which the body can't metabolize.

Sodium erythorbate: Erythorbic acid and its sodium salt, sodium erythorbate, are food additives and preservatives used in processed meat to maintain colour. It's also used in many other foods, such as frozen fruit and beer, wine and cider.

The chemical is derived from sugar and produced from corn, sugar beets or sugar cane. The rumour that it's derived from earthworms is false, but it's pervasive enough that the USDA and several state departments of agriculture have pages clarifying the chemical's source. "Erythorbate is NOT earthworms. Perhaps the spelling or pronunciation has contributed to this misconception because the Hotline receives many calls related to this concern," reads an FAQ on the USDA site.

Erythorbic acid is chemically similar to ascorbic acid — vitamin C — so studies have been done to determine if it has nutritional value. The studies found that the chemical isn't absorbed by the body as easily as ascorbic acid, but it doesn't interfere with the vitamin's absorption, either.

Toxicity studies have found that sodium erythorbate is not carcinogenic and it is generally considered safe.

Sodium nitrate: This multi-purpose chemical compound is used in fertilizer, in fireworks, smokebombs and as a rocket propellant, and in enamels for pottery and glass. It's also a food preservative.

Sodium nitrate is using in curing meat to help kill bacteria, maintain colour and extend shelf life.

While sodium nitrate itself is generally considered safe, a small percentage of the chemical is transformed by bacteria in the body to sodium nitrite, a related chemical that is also used as a preservative in some processed meats. Some studies have linked nitrites to an increased risk of cancer. Antioxidants such as Vitamin C can help slow the reaction that converts sodium nitrate into sodium nitrite.

Sodium nitrate occurs naturally in leafy green plants. One kilogram of raw celery, for example, contains more than a gram of sodium nitrate.

Some companies use ingredients like celery extract as an undeclared source of sodium nitrate. Maple Leaf's Natural Selections ham, billed as containing "no preservatives" or "artificial ingredients," does contain "cultured celery extract."

A Consumer Reports investigation of hot dogs found that brands that boasted that they contain "no added nitrates," but listed celery juice among their ingredients, contained levels of nitrates and nitrites comparable to the cured brands.

(Maple Leaf's Natural Selections ham also contains "smoke" and "smoke flavour," also called liquid smoke. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency ruled in 1992 that food containing liquid smoke can still claim to have "no preservatives added.")

The Canadian Cancer Society warns: "When meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives, cancer-causing substances can be formed. These substances can damage cells in the body and lead to the development of colorectal cancer. Research shows that eating processed meat increases the risk of cancer. Save processed meat for special occasions, such as ham for a holiday dinner or a hot dog at a sporting event."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that four slices of Maple Leaf Cooked Ham contain 770 milligrams of sodium. In fact, according to Maple Leaf's nutrition disclosure, this amount is in two slices.
    Sep 12, 2010 3:35 PM ET