There's no easier home-prepared meal than throwing together a sandwich with deli meat. Just layer your favorite bread with mayo, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and your choice of cold cuts, and you have yourself a satisfying lunch to eat at home or take with you on the go. However, even though lunch meat is affordable, easy, and delicious, certain types of it have been found to be potentially harmful to your health.
In fact, studies have shown over the years that processed meat, which is something that is cured or has preservatives added to it in some way, is possibly linked to an increased risk of multiple types of cancer. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified processed meats as a "class 1 carcinogen," meaning there is enough evidence to say this type of meat can have carcinogenic effects on human beings. These health risks of processed meat have to do with their additives and preservatives, as well as higher levels of sodium and saturated fat.
So, while it is important to limit your consumption of cold cuts when possible, there are some healthier deli meat options you can choose on those days when a simple lunch sandwich is calling your name.
The best deli meats are those that have been minimally processed, so when purchasing store-bought options, opt for the highest quality brand you can find within your budget, ideally something organic and low in sodium, says Sydney Greene MS, RDN. "In fact, the best option is to order directly from the deli counter and ask if any options are cooked fresh."
Nutritional factors to consider when looking for the healthiest deli meat at the store
Deli meats are processed for a longer shelf life, and this usually means manufacturers add tons of sodium for the preservation and curation techniques. Unfortunately, this means that many (if not most) options of sliced deli meat at the store are going to be higher in sodium than fresher meat products.
While a little sodium is necessary for muscle health and the body's absorption of minerals, consistently consuming too much of it can lead to calcium loss, stroke, high blood pressure, and heart disease. If you're a daily lunch meat eater, look for options lower in sodium to help reduce your levels.
This type of fat is found in animal sources (as well as some tropical oils like coconut), which means that lunch meats are going to sometimes contain more saturated fat than plant-based products, and certain types of meat will contain more than others. For example, red deli meat like roast beef, ham, or pepperoni will likely have more saturated fat than lean chicken and turkey.
Saturated fat can be fine in small portions, but consuming too much of it may lead to clogged arteries, high cholesterol, or heart disease. This is why the American Heart Association recommends limiting your consumption to no more than 13 grams per day.
As we've mentioned, many deli meat companies use preservatives in their products, and researchers have found that some of these may be harmful to our health.
An example is sodium phosphate. Studies have found that this common additive may contribute to accelerated aging, especially by way of vascular damage. Another scary additive is sodium nitrite, which studies have reported may be associated with breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer.
To avoid these potentially harmful preservatives and other ones like them, look for them on the ingredients list and choose deli meats with shorter ingredient lists.
Whether it's cured or uncured
When meat is cured, it means that it undergoes some sort of preservation process, usually with the manufacturers adding things like more sodium, sugar, or preservatives like sodium phosphate and sodium nitrate. One simple way to choose the healthiest and best deli meat is to look for one that says "uncured" on the label.
The 10 Healthiest Deli Meats To Buy
With the aforementioned factors in mind, our dietitians selected their picks for the best deli meats you can buy at the store, as well as some of the unhealthier cuts you may want to avoid. These next 10 cold cuts keep sodium, fat, and preservatives in check and are dietitian-approved! Read on, and for more healthy shopping ideas, check out the 9 Best Canned Fish Brands, According to Dietitians.
Applegate Oven Roasted Turkey Slices
Ingredients: Organic Turkey Breast, Water. Contains less than 2% of the following: Sea Salt, Organic Potato Starch, Organic Chicken Broth, Rosemary Extract.
Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, registered dietitian and author of The First Time Mom's Pregnancy Cookbook and Fueling Male Fertility, Applegate Oven Roasted Turkey is one of the best deli meats you can buy for you and the family.
"Made with Applegate humanely raised turkey, these delicious deli slices have no antibiotics, added hormones, anything artificial, chemical nitrates or nitrites, or GMOs, making it the perfect addition to sandwiches, salads, and snack boards."
365 Organic Oven Roasted Chicken Breast
Ingredients: Organic Chicken Breast, Water, Organic Distilled White Vinegar, Sea Salt, Natural Flavor, Organic Honey.
If you're a Whole Foods shopper, you can confidently pick up their sliced Oven Roasted Chicken Breast and know that you won't be consuming any scary additives. "Made without fillers or binders, this chicken is made with vegetarian-fed animals and it tastes great," says Manaker.
Boar's Head Organic Turkey Breast
Greene swears by the Boar's Head Organic Turkey Breast, and we can't blame her. Even though the sodium is a bit higher than some of the other options on our list for best deli meats, only having one gram of saturated fat per serving can significantly help you stick to the AHA's recommendation of eating less than 13 grams per day. And, with 13 grams of protein per serving, this is a lean, high-quality option for meeting your protein goals.
Applegate Honey Uncured Ham
Ingredients: Pork, Water, Honey, Cane Sugar. Contains less than 2% of the following: Sea Salt, Celery Powder.
This is an example of an uncured product that is safe and healthier to buy than many other sliced cured hams on the market. With only four main ingredients, the Applegate Uncured Honey Ham is a safe choice.
The only potentially negative trait about this choice is the added cane sugar, however, for a "honey ham," 3 grams per serving isn't all too bad.
Hormel Deli Smoked Ham
Ingredients: Water, Salt, Turbinado Sugar, Cultured Celery Powder, Cherry Powder, Sea Salt.
At first glance, you may not be too thrilled about the 580 milligrams of sodium, and that's understandable. But for a processed ham product, higher sodium alongside lower levels of saturated fat, preservatives, and added sugar can still make for a better product. It won't necessarily be as healthy as eating fresher pork products, but when you're in need of a quick sandwich or snack, this can be a helpful option.
Applegate Organic Roast Beef
Ingredients: Organic Grass-Fed Beef, Water, Salt, Organic Black Pepper.
The nutrition label on this Applegate Organic Roast Beef is impressive. Not only are there only four ingredients, but the meat is humanely raised and never fed antibiotics. On top of those benefits, just one gram of saturated fat for a red meat product is certainly on the lower end.
Applegate Uncured Turkey Pepperoni
Ingredients: Turkey, Sea Salt. Contains less than 2% of the following: Turbinado Sugar, Water, Spices, Cultured Celery Powder, Granulated Garlic, Cherry Powder, Lactic Acid Starter Culture (Not From Milk), Rosemary Extract, Oleoresin Of Paprika, Lime Juice Concentrate.
Pepperoni is a delicious addition to pizzas, subs, or with a few bites of cheese, but this processed meat is often made with cured beef and pork products, resulting in higher saturated fat, sodium, and more preservatives. Thankfully, Applegate makes a delicious Uncured Turkey Pepperoni, which has less saturated fat and no scary additives.
Tofurky Oven Roasted Plant-Based Deli Slices
Ingredients: Water, vital wheat gluten, tofu (water, soybeans, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride), soy sauce (water, soybeans, wheat, salt), expeller pressed canola oil, natural flavors, sea salt, contains less than 2% of onion, carrot, celery, garlic, leek, lemon juice concentrate, cornstarch, garbanzo bean flour, white bean flour, rosemary extract, calcium lactate, potassium chloride.
Just because you eat a plant-based diet doesn't mean you won't crave a deli sandwich from time to time. If that's the case, Tofurky Deli Slices are some of the best options for vegetarian deli meat. The ingredients list may be a bit longer than some of the other healthy options on the list, but the ingredients are all safe to consume. It also uses potassium chloride, which research has found to be a safe replacement for sodium chloride in food products.
The only potential downside to this choice is that it uses wheat, so you'll have to skip it if you're gluten-free.
365 Whole Foods Market Black Forest Uncured Ham
Ingredients: Organic Pork, Water, Organic Distilled White Vinegar, Salt, Organic Evaporated Cane Sugar, Organic Molasses, Celery Powder, Organic Spice Extractives (Organic Cinnamon, Organic Cloves, Organic Capsicum).
Another healthier ham option, Whole Foods' brand Black Forest Uncured Ham has only one gram of fat, less than one gram of sugar, and has a short ingredient list with no additives. If you see the word "capsicum" on the list and don't recognize it, this word is just another way of saying bell pepper.
Gusto Uncured Pepperoni
Ingredients: Pork, Sea Salt, Contains Less Than 2% of the Following: Turbinado Sugar, Natural Flavoring, Wine, Sweet Paprika, Garlic, Lactic Acid Starter Culture.
This pork pepperoni from Gusto has only a few ingredients and stays away from additives and preservatives. It contains something called a lactic acid starter culture, which is a living bacteria often used in fermentation processes for kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and miso.
The 10 Worst Lunch Meats on Grocery Store Shelves
Oscar Mayer Smoked White Turkey
Ingredients: White Turkey, Water, Honey, Modified Cornstarch. Contains less than 2% of Salt, Sugar, Sodium Phosphates, Sodium Propionate, Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Ascorbate, Sodium Nitrite.
Manaker suggests steering clear of Oscar Mayer's Smoked White Turkey. "This turkey is packed with sodium, fillers, and other unsavory ingredients," she says. In fact, this meat contains both of the harmful additives we mentioned above: sodium nitrite and sodium phosphate, both of which have been linked to health consequences.
Oscar Mayer Bologna
Ingredients: Mechanically Separated Chicken, Pork, Corn Syrup, Water, Contains less than 2% of Salt, Ground Mustard Seed, Sodium Phosphates, Potassium Chloride, Sodium Propionate, Sodium Diacetate, Beef, Sodium Benzoate, Flavor, Sodium Ascorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Hydrolyzed Beef Stock, Autolyzed Yeast, Dextrose, Extractives Of Paprika, Sodium Lactate, Potassium Lactate, Celery Seed Extract.
Many of the Oscar Mayer products may not seem that bad when you first look at their nutrition facts because their levels of calories, fat, and sodium are decent. However, most of their products, like the Original Bologna, use preservatives like sodium phosphates and sodium nitrite.
Great Value Ham
Ingredients: Pork, Water, Salt, Dextrose. Contains less than 2% of Potassium Lactate, Sodium Phosphates, Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Flavor.
The Great Value Cooked Ham is another deli meat option that uses both sodium phosphate and nitrite. Skip this one and use one of the uncured hams mentioned in our list above.
Land O' Frost Peppered Beef
Ingredients: Beef, Water, Salt. Less than 2% Vinegar, Black Pepper, Flavorings, Sugar, Cherry Powder, citrus Extract, Yeast Extract, Cultured Celery Juice Powder.
Even though the ingredients list is safe and doesn't use any preservatives, Greene puts this Land O' Frost Uncured Peppered Beef on this list of worst deli meats because of its extremely high sodium count.
Land O' Frost Oven Roasted Turkey
Ingredients: Turkey Breast, White Turkey, Water. Less than 2% of Vinegar, Modified Corn Starch, Salt, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Flavorings, Turkey Stock, Dextrose, Brown Sugar, Potassium Chloride, Sodium Phosphates, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrite.
Similarly to their Peppered Beef, the Land O' Frost Turkey Breast is fairly low in calories and fat. However, you'll still be consuming sodium nitrite and sodium phosphates.
Oscar Mayer Honey Ham
Ingredients: Ham, Water, Honey, Salt, Contains Less Than 2% Of Sodium Phosphates, Sugar, Carrageenan, Sodium Propionate, Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Ascorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Soy Lecithin.
At 800 milligrams of sodium per serving, plus the use of sodium nitrite and sodium phosphate, the Oscar Mayer Honey Ham is one you'll want to avoid. If you're searching for sliced ham with a hint of sweetness, try the Applegate Uncured Honey Ham instead.
Oscar Mayer Carving Board Slow Roasted Ham
Ingredients: Ham, Water, Cultured Corn Syrup. Contains less than 2% of Salt, Vinegar, Sodium Phosphates, Sodium Ascorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Caramel Color.
No surprises here, Oscar Mayer's Carving Board Slow Cooked Ham, which is a thicker cut ham product, contains potentially dangerous preservatives and over 600 milligrams of sodium per 2-ounce serving. The third ingredient listed is also corn syrup, which is a highly-refined (or processed) sugar.
Oscar Meyer Beef Cotta Salami
Ingredients: Beef, Beef Hearts, Corn Syrup, Water, Salt. Contains less than 2% of Ground Mustard Seed, Sodium Phosphates, Flavor, Dextrose, Sodium Propionate, Sodium Diacetate, Dried Garlic, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Ascorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Soy Lecithin.
Oscar Mayer's Beef Cotto Salami, which just translates to "cooked beef salami," makes our list of worst deli meat because of its use of sodium nitrite. Not to mention, in just one slice you're getting 4.5 grams of total fat and 2 grams of saturated, with only 4 grams of protein. Also be warned, if you're a fan of the Beef Gotto, make sure you're okay with chowing down on some beef hearts.
Saag's Virginia Brand Ham
Ingredients: Cured With Water, Dextrose, 2% or less of Salt, Sodium Lactate, Sodium Phosphate, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Nitrite, Natural Flavorings, Caramel Color.
The total and saturated fat in Saag's Virginia Brand Ham are on the lower end, but the ingredients list of this cured ham contains potentially harmful preservatives. Not only that, but having almost 700 milligrams of sodium per serving isn't ideal either. You're better off trying Hormel's Smoked Deli Ham.
Ingredients: Water, Salt. Less than 2% of: Dextrose, Potassium Lactate, Spices, Sodium Erythorbate, Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Nitrite, Natural Flavoring.
And lastly, if you're tempted to grab some of this Buddig Pastrami, we suggest opting out. With 7 grams of fat, 3 grams of saturated fat, 600 milligrams of sodium, and the use of sodium nitrite, there are far healthier options out there for you.
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