It’s easy to make your friends think you’re the host with the most this holiday season with an impressive charcuterie board – assorted snack foods assembled on a large tray, platter or cutting board. Dozens of videos online show even the most clueless and clumsy how to put together a pleasing spread of antipasto-type foods.
The only catch? Toxic chemicals may be hiding in some of those treats, since charcuterie board mainstays like cured meat and dried fruit, and wild-card additions like hummus, can all contain health-harming ingredients.
Here’s how to assemble a healthier charcuterie board this season.
Foods like salami and sausage – the centerpiece of most charcuterie boards – are often made with nitrates and nitrites, which add color and prolong shelf life. But these chemicals increase the risk of cancer.
And though organic options and products with claims of “no nitrates or nitrites added” do not allow the addition of these ingredients, they may still contain naturally derived nitrate from celery powder or other sources, which will be noted on the label.
It’s best to make even naturally cured meat an occasional food, not a regular part of your diet. Consider going vegetarian and skipping the meat entirely or choosing a plant-based option.
If you do include meat on your board, check labels for sodium and potassium nitrates and nitrites, and avoid them. Or choose organic options, or other “Most Reliable” choices from our meat and dairy label decoding guide, which come with other benefits, such as reduced use of antibiotics.
Two or three kinds of cheese
Besides cured meat, cheese is the other highlight of a typical charcuterie board. Most cheese doesn’t score well in our Food Scores database, which ranks products for their nutritional value, as well as processing and ingredients of concern. The vast majority of cheese tends to be high in calories, saturated fat and sodium.
But it’s less likely to be full of harmful food additives. Check our meat and dairy label decoder for the “Most Reliable” cheeses or choose organic, which does not contain antibiotics and hormones. There are also a growing number of plant-based cheese brands.
Crackers or small rounds of bread
Crackers and bread can contain potassium bromate, a chemical leavening agent on EWG’s dirty dozen list of food additives. It’s classified by California as a known carcinogen and by an international cancer research agency as a possible human carcinogen. To avoid potassium bromate, check ingredients labels and our Food Scores database.
Both crackers and bread may contain other health-harming ingredients. They can be made with soybean oil, an artificial trans fat, which contains the food additive tert-butylhydroquinone, better known as TBHQ. Look for organic crackers made without added sugar for the most nutritious ones that have the fewest health concerns.
Jam or jelly
A dollop of jam and jelly on your charcuterie board may not contain lots of unhealthy food additives, but in many cases, it is nearly pure sugar – corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup. One type of grape jelly, for instance, is 65 percent sugar by weight and contains three teaspoons of added and natural sugar per serving.
Bottom line: Load up your snack board with less sugary foods.
You can place a small bowl of hummus on your platter, drizzled with a little olive oil and sprinkled with paprika. Take care choosing your hummus, though.
EWG’s analysis of this popular food found high levels of the weedkiller glyphosate in many store brands. But the levels varied considerably. Although most organic samples contained some glyphosate, the levels were much lower than the non-organic options.
Consult our analysis to see which store brands had lower levels of glyphosate, and check Food Scores for other concerns, such as added sugar, trans fats and “flavor.”
Cut-up apple or pear or a fistful of grapes make a nice addition to your charcuterie board. These are best to buy organic because of the high level of pesticides found on most non-organic fruit. Some remains even after the fruit is washed.
Our Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ shows which types of fruit are best to buy organic and which are OK to buy non-organic, when necessary. Bonus points for choosing locally grown produce, which cuts down on carbon-emitting transportation.
Dried fruit can contain some of EWG’s top food additives of concern – such as the food colorings Yellow 5 and Red 40. It can also contain preservatives like sulfites and sulphur dioxide.
Sulphur dioxide has been shown to cause asthma as well as reproductive and developmental toxicity, especially when inhaled. And though the levels of exposure from dried fruit may not be a risk for most individuals, the use of the gas during preservation may be a health risk for workers.
Some dried fruit is processed with other artificial ingredients, such as “flavoring,” a mix of chemicals added for taste and smell. And if it’s not organic, dried fruit has pesticide residue.
Even dried fruit with minimal processing can be high in sugar, so it’s best to avoid making it a centerpiece of your spread.
A handful of nuts – something savory and salty that complements all the other snacks – makes a great addition to your charcuterie board. You can’t go wrong with shelled, unprocessed organic nuts – a great source of protein at a fairly low cost. If you want them roasted, salted or flavored, try making your own to avoid added sugar and artificial flavor.
You may want to pile your board high with chunks of fresh cut-up vegetables. Cucumber, cherry tomatoes, carrots and radishes are great choices, both visually and nutritionally.
But vegetables contain residue of the potentially harmful chemical pesticides they’re grown with. Celery, bell peppers and tomatoes are among the Dirty Dozen™ of produce with the most pesticide residue, so choose organic whenever possible. Make sure to consult the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ to find the best items to buy.
Efforts to make food safer
Even a few changes to your planned refreshments can help you and your guests avoid toxic chemicals and too much sugar.
But the real solution to the health-harming ingredients in our food is better regulation of U.S. food safety. Two bills currently being considered in Congress would help.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced the Toxic-Free Food Act directing the Food and Drug Administration to narrow a loophole that allows food and chemical companies to determine whether food additives are safe. It would require that independent experts, not scientists on a company’s dime, determine whether the substance is safe.
The other bill is the Food Chemical Reassessment Act, introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), which would create a new office within the FDA dedicated to reassessing food chemicals on the market, like TBHQ. It would require the agency to reassess the safety of at least 10 chemicals used in food or food packaging every three years.