The term "healthy luncheon meat" no longer has to be an oxymoron. Whether you call them lunch meats, deli meats or cold cuts, the key is to choose ones that are low in fat and sodium. A sandwich made with whole-grain bread and a healthful luncheon meat can be a perfect no-fuss, no-muss, portable meal.
Luncheon meats fall into two main categories: Whole cuts of meat or poultry that are sliced to order at the deli counter, and sectioned and formed meat products that are pre-sliced and pre-packaged. But within each category, there are decisions to be made—no-salt-added, light, 96 percent fat-free, all natural, lower sodium, extra thin. Some products traditionally prepared using pork or beef are now made from chicken or turkey. There are even vegetarian "deli meats."
Aside from fat and sodium, one of the main health concerns with luncheon meats has been the use of sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate; these preservatives help prevent the growth of bacteria, most notably Clostridium botulinum, which creates a toxin that can cause botulism. When used in meats, they also contribute to the formation of nitrosamines, which have been linked to an increased risk of several kinds of cancer, including cancer of the stomach, esophagus, pancreas, colon and brain.
Though these preservatives are still used in some meat products, the levels have dropped in the last 20 years. And you can now buy meat products that are free of sodium nitrite and nitrate. Instead, some companies use an acid brine or add acid substances to inhibit bacterial growth. Others use a "natural" source of nitrate, such as celery juice, which, under certain circumstances, can get converted to nitrite inside the meat (but is still better for you than a product with sodium nitrite already formed). Another alternative is sodium erythrobate, a vitamin C derivative that works similar to sodium nitrite/nitrate—though not as well (these meat products tend to be in the freezer section). Read the label and check the ingredient statement of any meat product you are considering and try to avoid those with sodium nitrite/nitrate in particular. No matter what process or preservative is used, be aware that all meat products still need to be refrigerated.
Lunch meats considerations:
- Fat content can vary tremendously—from a low of 2 grams (lean roast beef) to 15 grams (liverwurst) per 2-ounce serving. Read labels carefully. Don't assume that chicken and turkey will be the lowest in fat.
- If you're watching your sodium intake, look for no-salt added luncheon meats, which have as little as 40 milligrams of sodium per 2-ounce serving. Other varieties can have nearly 800 milligrams of sodium in 2 ounces.
- "Natural" luncheon meats are typically free of additives, including sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate, but some may rely, instead, on natural sources of nitrite/nitrate.
- Check out the variety of vegetarian "luncheon meats" available in health-food stores and some mainstream markets. They contain little or no saturated fat but are typically high in sodium.
- If you have food allergies, read the ingredient list carefully. You may find unexpected ingredients, like whey (a dairy protein) or modified skim milk.
- If buying from the deli counter, ask to see the nutrition information before placing your order. Boar's Head and other companies provide brochures.
- Luncheon meats are highly perishable, so heed the package dating: "Sell by" tells the store how long to display the product. Don't buy the product after this date. "Best if used by" means the peak flavor and overall quality of the product will have passed after this date; it is unrelated to freshness or safety. "Use by" means exactly that—don't eat it after this date.