Lunch meats like turkey, chicken, lean ham, and lean roast beef are convenient protein options for making sandwiches, snacking, and tossing into salads. But do they carry health risks?
Deli meats fall under the umbrella category of processed meats—meats that have been preserved by salting, curing, smoking, or with the addition of chemical additives such as nitrates. Hot dogs, bacon, sausage, and ham, along with traditional lunch meats, all fall into this category. Consumption of processed meats as a whole has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. In a recent Harvard University study, researchers found that, on average, each 50 gram serving of processed meat consumed per day (roughly equivalent to 1 to 2 slices of lunch meat or 1 hot dog) was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of developing heart disease and a 19 percent higher risk of developing diabetes. These health risks may be due to the high amounts of salt and preservatives, such as nitrates, found in processed meats.
However, there is a very important limitation to these research findings. Many studies don’t include leaner cuts (white meats like chicken and turkey deli meat) in their analysis, or they lump them together with the fattier, red meats (like hot dogs, bacon, sausage, salami, bologna, and pepperoni), so we don’t yet know if all processed deli meats carry the same health risks. Hopefully, new research will shed some light on this issue.
In the meantime, if lunch meats are a part of your daily routine and you’d rather not give them up entirely, here are my suggestions for making healthier choices in the grocery store, at the deli counter, and at your favorite sandwich shop.
1. Eat lunch meats only occasionally (not every day). If you or your kids always bring or buy a sandwich for lunch, experiment with other tasty sandwich stuffers such as grilled vegetables; fresh grilled chicken breast; hummus or bean spread; nut butter with sliced strawberries or bananas; reduced-fat cheese and sliced tomato; low-fat tuna, chicken, or egg white salad; or avocado, spinach, and tomato.
2. Always choose lean cuts. Your best bets are turkey, chicken, lean ham, and lean roast beef. Don’t make salami, bologna, pepperoni, pastrami, corned beef, and other fatty cuts that are high in saturated fat part of your regular diet.
3. Ask if your supermarket carries any “store-roasted” meats. Store-roasted meats—most commonly turkey, roast beef, and chicken—are freshly prepared in-house and are not processed, so they’re a perfectly healthy choice. Many large grocery store chains offer these options at their deli, and they’re thinly sliced on the machines just like other lunch meats. Ask a deli employee if your store carries them.
4. When you’re shopping for lunch meats at the grocery store, try to choose brands that don’t contain nitrates. Check the ingredients panel to identify brands that don’t have added “nitrate” or “nitrite” ingredients. Here are a few nitrate-free brands that are widely available.
5. Experiment with your sandwich order. If you’re ordering a sandwich or sub at a deli, café, or diner, it’s unlikely that the deli meat they’re using is nitrate-free. It’s completely fine to order (and enjoy) a turkey sandwich once in a while, but most eateries will also offer non-processed options like a mozzarella and tomato sub or a grilled chicken and vegetable wrap, if you prefer to go that route.