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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, vacuumed 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.

  • BHT, BHA, & Tocopherols – antioxidants that help maintain the appeal and wholesome qualities of food by retarding rancidity in fats, sausages, and dried meats, as well as helping to protect some of the natural nutrients in foods, such as vitamin A.
  • Citric Acid – widely distributed in nature in both plants and animals. It can be used as an additive to protect the fresh color of meat cuts during storage. Citric acid also helps protect flavor and increases the effectiveness of antioxidants.
  • Corn Syrup – sugar that is derived from the hydrolysis of corn starch. Uses include flavoring agent and sweetener in meat and poultry products.
  • Gelatin – thickener from collagen which is derived from the skin, tendons, ligaments, or bones of livestock. It may be used in canned hams or jellied meat products.
  • Modified Food Starch– starch that has been chemically altered to improve its thickening properties. Before the starch is modified, it is separated from the protein through isolation techniques; therefore, the source of the starch used is not required on the label.
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – MSG is a flavor enhancer. It comes from a common amino acid, glutamic acid, and must be declared as monosodium glutamate on meat and poultry labels.
  • Sodium Nitrite – used alone or in conjunction with sodium nitrate as a color fixative in cured meat and poultry products (bologna, hot dogs, bacon). Helps prevent growth of Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism in humans.
  • 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.

  • Applegate Farms
  • Koch’s All Natural Turkey
  • Boar’s Head Natural
  • Dietz & Watson All Natural
  • Hormel’s 100% Natural

    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!


    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Great article Christy! Had no idea how those highly processed meats are actually made.

    • liza says:

      even with the brands listed, it's always a good idea to check the label. I recently realized Applegate farm puts evaporated cane syrup in their organic uncured ham slices and black forest ham slices.

      on a positive note, i LOVE their Spinach & Feta sausage with chicken and turkey (and no sweeteners!).

    • Kristina says:

      Thanks Christy, this article is a great education in convenience meats. Some ready-made packages of deli meat seem healthy thanks to marketing - "low-sodium", "low-fat" - but basically we all really need to read the labels closely. I'll be more vigilant myself now...have to admit I like the smoked turkey and mesquite chicken types you find in the little plastic boxes, but I suspect they're not that wise.

    • Paul says:

      90% sold on trying this program. Woul love to start rhis coming monday. Heres my schedule though. Wake uP 7 breakfast 10 snacks 1 lunch 4 snacks 7 get off at work. Now here's my concern. It takes me an hour to get to my gym from work and normally start working out at around 8pm. Based on your program i might finish around 9. So should i have my dinner before or i can still take it after working out.

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Paul - I think you should eat your dinner after your workout. While some people find frequent eating can help with fat loss, it has not been proven to increase metabolism. So in other words, if you go from 4pm until 9pm without eating, you should be fine. If energy is an issue, you could even just grab an apple pre-workout.

    • Jessica says:

      I have a question that I am hoping someone can answer. I have been trying to read through websites to get the answer, but I can't find it. My question is about oven roasted chicken and turkey breast that you buy at the deli counter. If it is really just turkey/chicken breast, why doesn't it look like cooked breasts? It is usually a very large shape, almost spherical shape and does not have the same texture as when I cook chicken or turkey breast myself. Your article says they are "freshly cooked", so why do they look like how they do? There must be some kind of binders and additives if they are forming it into one big loaf to slice, no?

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Jessica - I think it's important to make the distinction between grilled chicken breast, and chicken breast deli meats, which are typically processed (which is why they have that type of shape) and may have some additives, and usually have a lot more sodium. If you are in a deli, opt for grilled chicken breasts instead.

    • Stone says:

      Hi, guys, good weekends! I'am Lei Stone, a Chinese-English interpreter. I do a lot of traveling jobs from one place to another,feel hard to keep a regular training schedule. Do you have any idea to share with a traveling man? Your suggestions will be very grateful!

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Stone - I think there are a few core tips to share:

        1) Bring your exercise clothes with you when you travel
        2) Bring a jump rope - you can get a great workout with a little space.t Another idea is to go for a run outside, don't need much equipment for that.
        3) Choose a certain number of days to workout each week, let's say 3. This will help you focus your energies.
        4) Use the hotel gym when possible. A combination of dumbbells and body weight exercises is all you need for a very good workout
        5) When there is no hotel gym, consider doing a circuit in your hotel room after a proper warm up and some dynamic stretching. Here's an example that you can do for 4-5 rounds and probably in 10 minutes:

        Push ups

        Good luck!

    • Lynn says:

      I work in a deli at my local grocery store and I have to say that your article was very informative and I was also glad to see Boars Head make your list! I have been trianed to work with Boars Head lunch meat and cheeses. I currently work at a different store which does not offer this brand and honestly I'm asked on a daily basis what to look for in "healthy" lunchmeat. Its great to apply the knowledge I've been tained with and also that there is accurate information out there for a quick reference!

    • Perry says:

      Does anyone know why unprocessed lean lunch meat has less protein than from a regular cut of lean meat?

      I was looking at the back of a package of lean turkey breast lunch meat, and it lists 9 grams of protein for two ounces. Off a regular breast it's 16 grams.

      Same for chicken.

      I don't get it.

      • Kristin says:

        That's a great question, Perry. What brand of lunch meat are you getting? One reason that deli lunch meat could contain less protein is because there's generally ingredients (such as carrageenan) which are added as a thickeners and emulsifiers to improve the texture of deli meat. Even Applegate Naturals (which is recognized as being a good, healthy, and organic brand) uses carrageenan. These ingredients aren't necessarily good for you (in fact, carrageenan is recognized as being inflammatory and potentially carcinogenic), so I would recommend making your own oven-roasted turkey at home to avoid added ingredients. Does that answer your question?
        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • Perry says:

      It's more than one brand. But it's lean breast, regardless.

      I thought about the additives, but they would have to be a lot in order to add to the weight of the serving size (2 ounces--which is 9 grams of protein).

      I don't see how it could make a difference, unless it chemically lowers the protein value in some way.

      But one brand I have had in the past didn't have any additives, so . . .

      It's a freakin' mystery.

      But thank you for the reply back. :-)

      • Kristin says:

        Totally! I would also guess that the water added to the turkey meat changes how much protein there is in 2oz. For example, if you look at Applegate's Natural Roasted Turkey Breast, the first two ingredients are turkey breast and water. The amount of water in deli meat will also decrease the concentration of protein.
        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • Perry says:


      You know, I never thought of the added water.

      I was just looking at the "lean part" of it all.

      Wow, thanks, Kristin.

      I can now live a normal life, and sleep at night. ha ha