Last weekend, I had the pleasure of being a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding. She is from Chicago, her husband is from Chicago, and pretty much everyone who attended the wedding was from Chicago, with the exception of a few people. Her family and friends are great, and many of them read my blog. In fact, if I were making money each time I got a new blog reader, I’d have to pay her family commission!
The brother of the bride asked if I would do a blog on deli meat. However, he made it very clear that if I had nothing nice to say about deli meat, he’d like me to “cancel the blog” because he’s clearly not willing to remove it from his diet. Well, Colin, you’ll be happy to know that not all deli meat is bad and I actually think it can be a great way to easily fit some protein into your diet!
The biggest things to look out for in terms of deli meat are highly processed meats and those containing nitrates. Some of the most highly processed meats include bologna, ham or roast beef. Basically, these are meats that are seasoned with things like sugar, spices, sodium, and other MSG-containing flavors, and then formed into a symmetrical shape and packaged up for a long shelf life. Anything that is perfectly shaped is definitely processed. One statistic I read said that 15% of the meat produced in the US is used to make over 200 varieties of processed meats. A long list of ingredients on a package of deli meat should be a red flag. Things like turkey and chicken are sometimes formed from pieces of meat that are bonded together and then sliced thinly. It is possible that they can also be highly processed and contain additives and preservatives.
Nitrates are used to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria on deli meat. In addition, they act as a color fixative for cured meats. However, nitrates can also combine with something in the stomach to form compounds that are associated with cancer. Nitrates have been linked to cancer of the oral cavity, bladder, esophagus, stomach and brain.
One nitrate-free deli meat brand that many people like is Applegate Farms. Their meats are sold at Whole Foods and do not contain preservatives or other chemicals. Hormel Natural Choice can be found at most grocery stores and also claims to have no added preservatives or nitrates. However, it still can have other flavorings added to the meats so make sure you read the labels carefully. Boar’s Head deli meat has some types that are nitrate-free – most of their ham contains nitrates but some chicken and turkey does not.
It’s difficult to know which sliced deli meats contain nitrates and other harmful chemicals, and which are more pure. I recommend buying organic whenever possible to ensure that the meats are made from 100% actual animal meat, not parts and pieces of the animal that are molded together and sliced to look like chicken breast. If the animals are grass-fed, that is even better. I would also try to read ingredient lists if you are buying pre-packaged meat. Just make sure you understand what each ingredient is and making a conscious decision to eat those things. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions at the deli counter. They can show you ingredient lists if they’re not displayed, and you can use that information to make the best choice about what you buy.
Some people will avoid deli meat altogether, but that isn’t really realistic for most of us. While eating a perfectly clean diet is ideal, it can sometimes prevent us from getting the protein and other nutrients we need each day. So, my advice is to just do the best you can, and if you do have a choice of meats, choose the ones that are the least likely to be processed and contain chemicals and additives. I wouldn't go out and buy bologna on a regular basis for your kids - things like that are easy to work around and there are plenty of healthier alternatives.
Of course, another great option is to make your own sliced meat by cooking chicken breasts or a ham, and then slicing it and using it in your sandwiches. This is not realistic to do every week, but once in a while it is good to incorporate the more real meat into your diet. Plus, it tastes so much better this way!