ST. LOUIS — Children are heading back to school with sandwiches packed in their lunchboxes. But if your lunch routine includes cold cuts such as ham, bologna, roast beef or even turkey, you’re going to want to pay attention. A new analysis by Consumer Reports underscores the health risks associated with these popular foods.

It might surprise you, but multiple studies have found that regularly eating even small amounts of processed meats, like hot dogs and bacon, increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. It’s the same for cold cuts, even organic versions. It’s all processed meat.

Food scientists at Consumer Reports tested 31 varieties of deli meat for nitrates and nitrites, which are used to prevent bacterial growth and add flavor but may be linked to cancer.

CR’s testing found that among the meats labeled “cured” and “uncured,” the nitrate and nitrite levels were essentially the same. And testing found that even meat labeled to indicate no nitrites actually contained some. Government rules for labeling cold cuts are misleading because no nitrites doesn’t actually mean no nitrites; it means no synthetic nitrites. Synthetic ones are made in a lab and natural ones come from vegetables such as celery.

Consumer Reports’ scientists say the chemical composition of natural and synthetic nitrates and nitrites are exactly the same—and so are their potential health effects.

While the North American Meat Institute says that most nitrites in our diets come from vegetables, the industry group says many meat processors think that all deli meat should be labeled “cured” no matter which curing process is used.

Also of concern is that some cold cuts Consumer Reports tested contained coloring agents that may also pose health risks. And many of the samples had high levels of sodium.

So do you have to give up deli meat completely? Consumer Reports say not necessarily, but it suggests limiting how much you and your family eat.

 Instead of packing your child ham and salami, think outside the box with sandwiches made with tomatoes and mozzarella, roasted or fresh vegetables with avocado or hummus, and nut butters with apples or banana slices instead of jam.

More Consumer Reports stories:

RELATED: Consumer Reports: Why paying cash for medical care can save you money

RELATED: Consumer Reports: Airfare myths that could actually cost you

RELATED: Not all Cold Brew is created equal

RELATED: Consumer Reports: Beware of unsafe bike helmets