We know we're about to break the hearts of lunch-preparing moms and dads everywhere, but that deli meat might not be trustworthy. And it's not just about your kiddos; you could be sabotaging your own figure. Just a couple slices—no, really, just two of those thinly-sliced pieces of meat—of many of your favorite sandwich fillers have more sodium than a bag of pretzels; that's 450 miligrams! Sodium, a known contributor to hypertension, not only makes your belly bloated, but it's also a risk factor in the development of heart disease when eaten in excess.
As for the nitrate and nitrite debacle? Here's what you need to know: All "cured" deli meats include sodium nitrate and nitrite as preservatives to keep the cuts free from harmful bacteria. To claim "All Natural," brands substitute these artificial additives for their naturally-occurring counterpart—celery powder—and dub themselves "uncured." But whether it's the synthetic version or from celery powder, it's basically the same thing, according to Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN. She also tells us there's no verdict on whether nitrates are harmful or safe. (Ever seen beet juice nitrates being marketed to help boost your endurance?)
What we do know is this: the World Health Organization (WHO) released a study in 2015 linking high consumption of processed meats (which equates to four slices of bacon a day) to colorectal cancers. However, the authors of the study say that the occasional hot dog is okay. The takeaway? As long as you grab good-quality meat made with good-for-you ingredients, eating a sammy with deli meats once or twice a week isn't going to do a ton of damage. What's more important than choosing a nitrate- or celery-juice-preserved meat is actually eating a predominantly plant-based diet, which has been connected with the lowest incidences of cancers and other diseases when compared to those who eat the least amount of produce.
Below, you'll find some of the best and worst lunch meat brands on the market. And if you can't find the brand we've recommended in your own grocery store, use the chosen product's nutritional information and ingredients as a guide to what you should look for. Once you've chosen a meat, find out where the rest of your sandwich add-ons stack up in our exclusive guide of 51 Best Lunch Foods For Weight Loss—Ranked!.
Applegate Naturals Roasted Turkey Breast
Per 2 oz (56 g): 50 calories, 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 360 mg sodium, 0 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 12 g protein
Land O'Frost Pure and Simple Oven Roasted Turkey Breast
Per 2 oz (56 g): 60 calories, 0.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 370 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 13 g protein
Land O'Frost Premium Oven Roasted Turkey Breast
Per 4 slices (50 g): 80 calories, 0.5 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 550 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 8 g protein
Lunchtime has far surpassed Thanksgiving as the most popular time for getting your tryptophan fix, but are you also indulging in a daily sodium bomb? You will be, if you're going with Land O'Frost's "Premium" Oven-Roasted Turkey Breast, which is mostly made up of the blood-pressure-raising stuff combined with "flavorings" and MSG. To get more protein—and way less sodium—go with the same brand's newest "Pure and Simple" line. It's nearly identical in ingredients and nutritionals to Applegate's, but Applegate is sold nationwide, so we chose to include them as well. Do this, and you won't fall prey to one of the 50 Little Things Making You Fatter and Fatter—ignoring sodium!
Applegate Naturals Uncured Honey Ham
Per 2 oz (56 g): 70 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 450 mg sodium, 3 g carbs (0 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 10 g protein
Oscar Mayer Deli Fresh Honey Ham
Per 2 oz (56 g): 60 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 510 mg sodium, 2 g carbs (0 g fiber, 2 g sugar), 9 g protein
Oscar Mayer figured out how to throw in six (yes, six!) different types of sodium. One of which is sodium phosphate, an ingredient whose high intake has been linked to higher rates of chronic kidney disease and weak bones. Even though phosphates are a necessary part of our diets, excess phosphate is more easily absorbed by the body and can lead to high levels of phosphate in the blood, which may put you at risk for heart disease. Concerned about heart disease? Check out these 17 Foods That Lower Cholesterol!
Oscar Mayer Natural Hickory Smoked Turkey
2 oz (56 g): 60 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 420 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 10 g protein
Oscar Mayer Deli Fresh Smoked Turkey Breast
Per 2 oz (56 g): 50 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 510 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 9 g protein
Lower in sodium, higher in protein, and free of all the artificial ingredients of its sister brand, Oscar Mayer finally churns out an okay product with their Natural Hickory Smoked Turkey.
Hormel Natural Choice Smoked Deli Ham
Per 2 oz (56 g): 60 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 520 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 10 g protein
Applegate Naturals Uncured Slow Cooked Ham
Per 2 oz (56 g): 60 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 480 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 11 g protein
Saag's Hickory Smoked Virginia Brand Ham with Natural Juice
Per 2 oz (56 g): 60 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 680 mg sodium, 2 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 10 g protein
If you don't mind the extra sodium—it's still a bag of Ruffles less than Saag's option—Hormel offers a Natural Choice Smoked Deli Ham with good-for-you ingredients as good as those from the leading brand of good meats, Applegate. Saag's, on the other hand, is not only full of sodium, it also carries sodium erythorbate, nitrites, corn syrup, and profylene gylcol; we don't think you'd be able to find those in your pantry.
Saag's German Brand Bologna
Per 1 oz (28 g): 70 calories, 7.5 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 210 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 4.5 g protein
Bar-S Classic Bologna
Per 1 slice (32 g): 100 calories, 8 g fat (2.5 g saturated fat), 350 mg sodium, 2 g carbs (0 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 3 g protein
A smoked, seasoned sausage usually made up of pork and chicken, bologna is the black sheep of deli meats thanks to being so over processed and concentrated in sodium. (Those nutritionals you're seeing above are usually for a single slice, compared to the nutritionals of deli meats which are 4-5 slices per serving.) To avoid the modified corn starches and potassium acetates, grab a package of Saag's over Bar-S—and you'll also save yourself the calories, fat, and sodium.
Hormel Natural Choice Rotisserie-Style Deli Chicken Breast
Per 2 oz (56 g): 50 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 470 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 11 g protein
Oscar Mayer Carving Board Rotisserie Seasoned Chicken Breast
Per 2 oz (56 g): 60 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 470 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 12 g protein
Who knew you could screw up chicken this much? These slices of Oscar Mayer Oven Roasted Chicken are browned with caramel color and doused in "cultured corn sugar"—a "label-friendly" fermented corn sugar which apparently minimizes listeria growth. Stick with Hormel's Natural Choice to taste chicken and not the "rotisserie chicken flavoring" of yeast extract (a "natural" alternative to MSG that is added to products to enhance its meat-like taste instead of letting the meat speak for itself) and "flavor" that you'll find in Oscar Mayer's option.
Aidells Cajun Style Smoked Chicken Breast
Per 2 slices, 2 oz (56 g): 50 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 420 mg sodium, 2 g carbs (0 g fiber, <1 g sugar), 12 g protein
Hillshire Farm Chipotle Chicken Breast
Per 3 slices (49 g): 45 calories, 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 630 mg sodium, 2 g carbs (<1 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 8 g protein
Complexly spicy and satisfyingly moist, Aidells' sliced meat has a strong Louisiana accent without any antibiotics, nitrites, or added hormones. The same can't be said of Hillshire Farm's Chipotle Chicken Breast. Not only do they use nitrates, they also use natural mesquite smoke flavor, three different ingredients that contain MSG, and natural flavor instead of real spices. Oh, and did we mention just three slices are packed with a quarter of your day's worth of sodium? That's definitely not the solution to how to get rid of bloating.
Applegate Organics Roast Beef
Per 2 oz (56 g): 80 calories, 3 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 320 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 12 g protein
Hillshire Farm Deli Select Ultra Thin Sliced Roast Beef
Per 2 oz (56 g): 70 calories, 3 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 550 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 11 g protein
Leave the beef flavor and caramel color—er, we mean Hillshire Farm's Roast beef—on the shelf and grab a package of Applegate Organics Roast Beef. Made from organic beef, which studies have found to be higher in heart-healthy omega-3s than conventional cuts, these slices will be the best meat for your French dip or sandwich with spicy horseradish. It may be pricier, but organic beef is one of the 20 Foods You Should Always Splurge On.
Applegate Naturals Uncured Genoa Salami
Per 1 oz (28 g): 100 calories, 7 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 480 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 8 g protein
Gallo and Galileo Salame
Per 1 oz (28 g): 110 calories, 9 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 480 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 6 g protein
It's salty, fatty, delicious, and a staple of every Italian sub. If you're going to indulge, do so with your better body goals in mind and pick up a package of Applegate Naturals' Genoa Salami. You'll get the same flavor from Gallo (called Galileo on the East Coast) but for fewer calories and grams of fat and with an extra 2 grams of protein.
Black Forest Ham
Hillshire Farm Naturals Black Forest Ham
Per 3 slices (49 g): 50 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 500 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, <1 g sugar), 9 g protein
Budding Original Black Forest Ham
Per 4 slices (50 g): 90 calories, 5 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 760 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 10 g protein
Most deli meats fail in one of two ways: too much fat or too much sodium. Buddig's products routinely fail in both ways compared to their peers. Not only in nutritionals, but also in ingredients, throwing in additives like caramel color and natural flavoring to give their products the appearance of looking good and tasting good. Hillshire Farm's Naturals line is made without any artificial nitrites—only getting them from celery juice powder—and let the meat speak for itself by eschewing any "natural flavors." If you're watching your sodium, we'd also recommend taking a look at Applegate Naturals, whose ham rings in just shy of the 500 mg mark at 480 mg.
Per 2 oz (56 g): 80 calories, 3 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 560 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 12 g protein
Budding Original Pastrami
Per 2 oz (56 g): 100 calories, 7 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 600 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 9 g protein
Pastrami is usually a Not That! when it comes to those who are watching their sodium levels. That's because even the healthy options are full of the stuff. Saag's wins out compared to Budding here because it has more than half the fat, fewer calories, and more muscle-building protein. Plus, it's made from Choice beef, one of the better cuts of meat (second tier) on the market.
Applegate Naturals Uncured Mini Pork Pepperoni
Per 1 oz (28 g): 50 calories, 3.5 g fat (1.5 g saturated fat), 350 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 3 g protein
Hormel Pepperoni—25% Less Fat
Per 1.1 oz (30 g): 120 calories, 10 g fat (3.5 g saturated fat), 610 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 7 g protein
Hormel Pepperoni—50% Less Sodium
Per 1.1 oz (30 g): 160 calories, 15 g fat (6 g saturated fat), 260 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 5 g protein
Hormel serves up two food who satisfy one of the weight loss rules you can cheat on: low-sodium and low-fat foods are not always best for your body. In Hormel's case, the pepperoni with less fat is absurdly high in sodium—nearly twice that of Applegate's—and their less sodium option ramps up the fat count. You're better off with their original option, which is moderate on both counts, or just go for the best option: Applegate Naturals.
Applegate Naturals Uncured Mini Turkey Pepperoni
Per 1 oz (28 g): 40 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 360 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 5 g protein
Hormel Turkey Pepperoni
Per 1.1 oz (30 g): 70 calories, 4 g fat (1.5 g saturated fat), 640 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 9 g protein
Turkey pepperoni is going to be naturally lower in calories and fat compared to its pork counterpart, so we're looking for pizza toppers who have simple ingredients. Applegate wins this round hands down, as Hormel uses carcinogen-containing BHA and BHT as preservatives, along with "flavoring," nitrite, and smoke flavor. Applegate sticks to celery powder for nitrites and even adds an extra layer of protection with rosemary extract. This ingredient acts as an antioxidant, which may help to limit the ability of nitrites to form cancer-causing nitrosamines under conditions of high temperatures.
Tofurky Oven Roasted Deli Slices
Per 5 slices (52 g): 100 calories, 3 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 300 mg sodium, 6 g carbs (3 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 13 g protein
Yves Veggie Deli Turkey Slices
Per 4 slices (50 g): 100 calories, 1.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 340 mg sodium, 5 g carbs (0 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 16 g protein
Both vegetarianism and vegan foods are skyrocketing in popularity right now thanks to the advocacy of the benefits of a plant-based diet, which range from fewer incidences of disease to better weight management. When considering what brand to buy, you want to look for one with the least amount of scary chemicals, and something that's low in carbs while being high in protein. Tofurky may be lower on each of those fronts compared to Yves, but Yves chooses to include an ingredient we've advocated against eating: carrageenan. This additive has been connected to inflammation, ulcers, and other gastrointestinal problems.