How Healthy Is Deli Meat?

by | Apr 18, 2011

Photo by Daryl Marquardt

People trying to cut calories and refined carbohydrates out of their diet often turn to deli meats as a high protein, low fat alternative. But is this really a good idea?

While refined carbohydrates increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease, so do processed meats including sausage, bacon and deli meats. It is unlikely to be the fat (or even the saturated fat) in these products that do the damage, since processed meats are consistently shown to be more dangerous than saturated fat alone.

In fact, what the food manufacturers replace the fat with often ends up being much more risky.

What’s in them?

Take a quick look at the ingredients of a Louis Rich turkey variety pack:

Smoked White Turkey: White Turkey, Water, Salt, Contains less than 2% of Modified Corn Starch, Sodium Lactate, Sugar, Sodium Phosphates, Sodium Erythorbate (Made From Sugar), Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Nitrite, Garlic Powder.

Smoked Turkey Ham: Turkey Thigh Meat, Water, Contains less than 2% of Salt, Sodium Lactate, Sugar, Sodium Phosphates, Sodium Erythorbate (Made From Sugar), Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Nitrite, Flavor.

Turkey Bologna: Turkey Ingredients (Mechanically Separated Turkey, Turkey), Water, Modified Corn Starch, Contains less than 2% of Salt, Sodium Lactate, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, Flavor, Enzyme Modified Skim Milk, Sodium Phosphates, Sodium Erythorbate (Made From Sugar), Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Nitrite, Extractives of Paprika.

Turkey Cotto Salami: Turkey Ingredients (Turkey, Mechanically Separated Turkey), Water, Turkey Hearts, Contains less than 2% of Salt, Sodium Lactate, Sugar, Sodium Phosphates, Spice, Sodium Erythorbate (Made From Sugar), Garlic Powder, Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Nitrite, Flavor.

What exactly is “flavor”? I’ll let you ponder that one.

These meats are pumped full of starch, sugar, salt, preservatives and other random ingredients. Given the quality of the meat they use (“mechanically separated turkey”?) it’s not hard to understand why. All that added “flavor” is needed to make these products taste like juicy meat again.

The low fat versions are even worse, containing higher amounts sugar and salt to make up for the lack of natural fat flavor.

Why is this bad?

The extra starch and sugar are not good since they are, after all, the processed carbohydrates we want to avoid. However these are still a relatively small contribution to total calories. The bigger issues with processed meats are the added sodium and preservatives.

Processed meats have been associated with increased risk of several cancers, particularly those of the digestive system. It has been suggested that the presence of nitrates and nitrates used in the preservation methods are a potential cause, however the data remains inconclusive. Confusing the matter further is that vegetables are the primary source of nitrates in the human diet and some have suggested that in this context they may be a beneficial nutrient.

Heart disease has also been clearly associated with consumption of processed meat, though the reason for the connection is still unknown.

Then there’s the issue of quality. There are a lot of questionable ingredients in highly-processed deli meats like these from Louis Rich. It is unclear if the health risks are the same whether the meats are cured and preserved with high-quality ingredients (charcuterie vs. standard deli meat) or when the meat is preserved without the use of nitrates and nitrites.

What to do

Though it is difficult to point to the exact reason processed meats are dangerous, there is enough evidence associating them with serious health problems to warrant limiting them in your diet. Most of the studies that found associations with processed meats and cancer considered 5 or more servings a week to be a high dose.

To be on the safe side I recommend limiting your intake of processed meats to less than 4 servings per week.

For alternative snack ideas check out Healthy Snacking 101.

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10 Responses to “How Healthy Is Deli Meat?”

  1. This is why I want a good, heavy-duty slicer. I can get a whole ham or a good eye of round roast for about $2 per pound and slice it myself. The sliced ham or roast beef at the deli counter will be at least $6 per pound.

    Having a local butcher that smokes their own meats has made this issue less pressing for me. :-)

  2. Canadian says:

    I have read about processed meats being bad for you, and rarely eat them. But what I wonder is, what about artisanal locally produced “processed meats”? There is a little butcher shop at the market where I sometimes buy sausages (they have like 20-30 different kinds!), bacon and deli meats, most of which they make themselves. Is that likely to be any better than the supermarket variety?

    Also, “processed meats” includes ham, right? Even a whole ham?

    • Darya Pino says:

      Like I said in the article, this point is still unclear. Even fancy charcuterie places usually use nitrates, and I am not sure if the science is sensitive enough to pull apart the differences in smoking method. Right now it seems all smoked meats are dangerous. And yeah, that includes ham.

  3. Sean G Mills says:

    What is your take on the documentary “Fathead,” which promotes regular/daily meat consumption?

  4. Alex Felts says:

    I know I should be avoiding deli meats but I am hooked on packing a sandwich for lunch. Any alternatives?

  5. wait so when u goto grocery store and buy a real turkey in the package how do u know none of these chemicals are in that as well?

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