Deli Meat 101: What’s Really In Your Sandwich?
A turkey sandwich is a fast, simple, lowfat, high protein component to a meal. You can eat it for lunch, you can make it for dinner, you don’t need utensils, it’s practically mess-free, and it even works as a snack too.
So if deli meat can be great in so many ways, why are we talking about it? Because there are an abundance of deli meats and products from sausages, to fresh sliced, to low sodium, to nitrate free, to organic, it is hard to know what to choose.
This guide has been created to help you make a more informed decision the next time you are roaming the deli counter or aisle.
What Are Deli Meats?
Behind the deli counter or in the deli isle, I am sure you noticed the plethora of meat choices that come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. The various deli meats can be divided into 3 major categories:
1) Fresh Cooked Meat – Full pieces that are freshly cooked and flavored with salt and various spices. Think freshly baked turkey, or roast beef.
2) Moderately Processed – These are pieces of excess meat that are removed from the bone and ground together. Once ground, they are emulsified into a soft cake-like batter where flavors, additives, and binders are added so that they can form a mold. Once the consistency is reached, the meat is then cased in a cylindrical package or placed in its mold to be moved to the smoke house. It is here where the meat is cooked for several hours. Once completed, it is either packaged as one piece or sliced and then packaged. Examples of these meats are turkey, chicken, bologna.
3) Very Processed – These go through a similar process as above and are often a mixture of meats (like beef, veal, turkey, chicken) that are ground together to the right consistency, blended to a paste, vacummed to remove excess air and protect from bacterial growth, emulsified, added with preservatives and sugars to begin fermentation process, and cased into its shape (usually cylindrical). Then the meat is either moved to the dripping room where it is aged for several days (think salami), cooked and smoked so it can be eaten hot or cold (think kelbasa and mortadella), or cooked so that it can be eaten only when it is cooked (think hot dogs, liver sausage) . Once the heat process is complete, it is either packaged as one piece or sliced and then packaged.
Deli Meat Additives
What are you actually biting into when you are going for a few easy slices of deli meats? It will depend on the type of meat you chose. Ideally, the food we eat should be as close to its natural creation as possible, but unless it is freshly cooked, the ingredient list can be a lot more than that!
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service Labeling Regulations created a glossary list of lunch meat ingredients that are often found in your typical choices. Below are only a few of the 25+ names you may find on a label. For more information and explanation on all additional items, here’s the USDA Fact Sheet on Food Additives.
6 Tips To Choose Healthy Deli Meat
Those are just some ingredients, right? If you weren’t daunted before in choosing deli meats, you may be now. So, here are a few simple ways to help in your decision making process.
1) Go Fresh – If you have the option of a freshly cooked, sliced meat, go for it. This is the best way to avoid any of the extra add-ins that are used for preservation.
2) Go Lean – Lower fat meats are your best option for keeping a healthier, lower calorie diet. Turkey, chicken, lean ham, lean roast beef are the most optimal choices.
3) Go Organic – Organic, vegetarian fed/grass-fed, no growth hormones, no antibiotics – all or any of these are important to consider when choosing a meat product.
4) Go without Salt – Choose low-sodium options whenever possible. Four slices of turkey is the minimum on a typical sandwich. The average sodium in 4 slices of deli turkey is 1152mg which is just under half the daily recommended amount of 2400mg! Also, no MSG is also something to go without.
5) Go without Nitrites/Nitrates – Although it may lack a little in color without these, you may find not eating something that has been linked to cancer a much bigger benefit. Nitrates occur naturally in the environment (ex. soil, seawater, freshwater systems) and some foods (spinach, beets, celery, root vegetables, lettuce). Nitrates can be dangerous because they are converted to nitrites in the body. This conversion then forms nitrosamines which are known as a cancer causing chemical. This doesn’t mean you can’t eat any deli meats. What it does mean is that you should be mindful of the amount and frequency of your deli meat intake that contain nitrates and nitrites.
6) Go no more than 3 days – To keep the meat fresh and prevent the risk of food poisoning, seal it in an airtight bag or container and throw it out after 3 days.
Best Healthy Deli Meat Brand Names
And for a little added help, here are just a few brand names that fit into the above profiles.
My suggestion: Choose the deli meat brand first so that you know you are getting a quality product. Doing this may knock out a few of the top tips to make that decision even easier.
Happy sandwich making!