Are you an ingredient list reader? If so, do you understand what you are reading all the time? I try to do my best to read ingredients but I don't always I understand what I am reading. For example I have seen potassium lactate, on an ingredient list before. Sounds like a dairy ingredient (below you will learn that it is not). Recently I decided to explore what is on the ingredient list for most hams that you find at the store.
I am going to do my best here to inform of each ingredient you might encounter. I am not a scientist, so I don't fully comprehend each ingredient. This is the best information I could find on each ingredient. Hopefully this will give you a basic idea of what you are consuming. Hopefully you will be inspired to do your own research.
To give you an idea of what ingredients may be more troublesome than others, I include which ingredients are the banned ingredient list at Whole Foods Market. I list either banned or not banned underneath each ingredient. I choose Whole Foods as they tend to be more restrictive on what ingredients they allow in their stores than other grocery store chains.
If you are interested in learning more about what is in your food I recommend checking out the book "This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth?" (affiliate link)
Lactate sounds similar to lactose. This seems like a milk derived ingredient. This is not true. It is the potassium salt of lactic acid. Potassium lactate is used to extend the shelf life in meat and poultry products. It is effective at inhibiting bacteria that cause spoilage by controlling acid levels in the food. The FDA calls it a humectant which means it helps food retain water, something you would want in ham.
I didn't see a lot of worry out there about this ingredient. The only red flag is that it is not authorized for use in infant foods or formula. I also wonder if you eat too much of it could it cause you to retain water like it does for the ham. If you retain water then your blood pressure could increase. I haven't found any research on this, just curious.
Sodium phosphate can refer to any sodium salt of phosphoric acid. It is most often used as an emulsifier (such as preventing oil from separating from the rest of the food) and to improve the texture of the food it is added to. It assists in shelf life as well. Sodium phosphate can be used to keep food neutral - not too acidic or alkaline.
I did read one website that talked about eating too much sodium phosphate being dangerous.
Sodium diacetate is the salt of acetic acid. Sodium diacetate is a type of sodium acetate, you may see package with that on the label instead. It is used most often to season foods and as an antimicrobial. In terms of flavor it imparts a vinegar flavor such as in snack foods. It is a preservative for meats such as ham.
It is not allowed at Whole Foods Market due to it being a preservative. I didn't see the name "sodium acetate" on their list, so I am thinking only this type (sodium diacetate) is banned. I did not come across any more specific information out there about why sodium diacetate should be avoided.
Sodium eryhorbate is the sodium salt of erythborbic acid. It used to facilitated a faster cure and retain pink coloring in products like ham. It can be derived from different sources such as beets, sugar cane, and corn. This means it can possibly come from a GMO source so if you are concerned about that you may want to avoid it or only buy it if it found in an USDA Organic certified product.
Sodium eryhborbate also keeps food fresher as it inhabited the oxidation of food.
This is the ingredient that I think most people are familiar with. It has gotten a lot of attention media and food producers. Many companies have stopped using it or are offering alternatives without it. When it is taken out of an processed meat, that meat is labeled as uncured. Any ham that is uncured does not contain artificial sodium nitrate. Often those products use celery as a natural nitrate. There is debate whether this is really that much better for us. Here is a blog that does a fantastic job of explaining the issue - Don't Waste the Crumbs.
Dextrose is a simple sugar, so you could simply say that dextrose is sugar. It is made from corn (again GMO concern, so look for organic). Dextrose is used as a sweetner, most often in baked goods, but also to add sweetness to ham either in the ham itself or with a glaze the comes with the ham or both. It is also good at stabilizing food coloring. Dextrose can be labeled also as corn sugar, wheat sugar, rice sugar, dextrose monohyrdate, d-glucose, grape suguar, and dextrose anhyrase.
My Final Thoughts
For ham the ingredients above do the following:
1. Sweeten the ham
2. Retain the pink color of the ham
3. Help the ham retain water
4. Improve the texture of the ham
5. Extend the shelf life of the ham
6. Control the pH of the ham
All of these things allow us to buy the ham at the grocery store and have it last for a long time without going down in quality. Ham by definition is preserved meat.
I think it's best for any of these ingredients to just eat them at most in moderation. If you have a ham twice a year for Christmas and Easter, I would not worry too much about it. Go ahead and enjoy. Maybe still try to avoid the ingredients Whole Foods banned as best as possible, but don't stress yourself (stress isn't goo for your health either).
If you are talking weekly consumption I would act more cautious. A ham sandwich for lunch everyday isn't a healthy idea. It's a simple, easy to pack lunch, so I understand why so much of us do it. Ham sandwiches are delicious too. Maybe try to reduce that to once a week. And look more closely as the ham you are buying for this purpose. The cheaper stuff tends to have more of the ingredients mentioned above in them. I recommend eating ham less often and choosing more expensive, better quality meat. Buying this will help you better portion control and have better tasting sandwiches. Sounds like a win-win to me.