There are few things more universally beloved (besides perhaps Girl Scout cookies) than the sandwich. It’s the easiest lunch option on the planet: take two slices of sprouted bread, throw in some nut butter and fruit or some veggies and pre-sliced turkey, and you’re good to go. It’s such an easy, healthy option, right? Absolutely—except if that turkey you’re using is the pre-packaged deli meat kind.
“Not all deli meats are alike but unfortunately, most are high in sodium,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table. They also historically are made with iffy ingredients like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), which increase shelf life, and potentially-carcinogenic nitrates, which are used for curing. She says the same applies to charcuterie, aka the Instagram influencers of deli meats. “There are better choices out there, particularly lower sodium or fresh versions of the same meats,” she says.
So…is deli meat bad for you?
Well, it’s not great. Along with the above-mentioned health concerns, there is one big concern about deli meats: their association with cancer. Research has shown that eating lots of red and processed meats is linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer and breast cancer.
It’s not completely clear why the association exists, although there are likely a few factors at play. First, we have the use of nitrates. Nitrates on their own aren’t inherently bad, says Alicia Jerome, R.D. They naturally occur in vegetables like beets and celery, and can help reduce blood pressure and enhance exercise performance. But Jerome says that there is likely something in the meat that combines with the added nitrates to make them carcinogenic. “Some research has pointed to a specific type of iron, heme iron, as the differentiator.”
Plus, the digestion of any meat (including deli meat) also creates a substance called trimethylamine-n-oxide (TMAO), says Nadja Pinnavaia, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Euphebe. High levels of TMAO in the blood has been associated with plaque buildup in the arteries, and Dr. Pinnavaia says that it can trigger chronic inflammation. “Chronic inflammation is understood to be one of the precursors to some forms of cancer, especially colorectal, prostrate, breast and pancreatic,” she says.
The evidence is concerning enough that the World Health Organization considers processed meats (like deli meats) as a Group 1 carcinogens, in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos.
Before you start freaking out: Eating deli meat is NOT as as bad or as risky as smoking; it’s dose-dependent. That “dose” is pretty small though. Eating 50 grams a day of processed meat (which Jerome equates to about two ounces of deli meat) increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer by 18 percent, according to a meta-analysis from the Public Library of Science. So for a daily Italian sub eater, that’s not good news. But if your deli meat habits look like sneaking a piece of soppresetta during happy hour every now and then, you likely don’t have to stress too much about that risk.
Is it ever safe to eat this stuff?
Taub-Dix says it’s hard to say how much deli meat you can eat since it depends on so many factors. She says that if you have an underlying conditions like high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart disease or a medical issue that requires you to minimize your sodium intake, “then you may need to keep your deli meat under wraps, and not in wraps,” she says.
If you generally have a clean bill of health and you need that deli meat (it’s so convenient!), there are a few things to keep in mind. Start by choosing an organic or nitrate-free deli meat, says Taub-Dix, to ensure you’re getting high-quality products with the lowest amount of carcinogenic compounds possible. Ignore labels that say “all natural,” she adds, which is more of a marketing phrase than anything.
Then, read the nutrition facts panel and look at the sodium compared to the serving size. “A product that is considered to be ‘low sodium’ contains 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving,” Taub-Dix says. Just one slice of your standard deli turkey meat, on the other hand, contains around 216 milligrams of sodium, which is why she says a single hearty homemade or fast food sandwich might contain your entire recommended 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. Good to know.
Again, you don’t have to completely cut these foods out of your life if you love them—it’s just best to eat less of them, and as part of a well-rounded diet, says Dr. Pinnavaia. “The rare slice of prosciutto every now and again in the context of a nutrient-dense, predominantly plant-based diet might not impact your health too dramatically,” she says. “However, if those strips of bacon are loaded on top of a meat-heavy diet, then you are in trouble.”
Speaking of healthy foods, is apple cider vinegar good for you or is it all hype? And if you’re off meat altogether, here’s your guide to complete, plant-based protein.
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