We reveal what you’re buying next time you order meat at the deli counter.
Three different types of meats are sold at the deli: whole cuts, manufactured meat products, and processed meats.
Whole cuts of meat or poultry are cooked and then sliced. These products include roast beef, corned beef, chicken breast and sliced turkey breast.
Manufactured meat products are prepared from pieces of meat, which are cut and pressed together to form the shape of whole meat. They must contain at least 66% meat and can have other ingredients added. Examples include cooked hams and multi-part turkey breasts.
Processed meats contain a minimum of 30% meat (where ‘meat’ includes all parts of the carcass, including offal and fat) and have undergone processing such as smoking, drying, salting, curing, fermenting, pickling and cooking. They can contain other ingredients such as preservatives.
Many deli meats are also available prepackaged from the refrigerated section of the supermarket. These are mainly manufactured meat products or processed meats – ranging from bacon and ham, to salami and sausages. Like many deli meats, pre-packaged cold meats contain additives such as phosphates (to increase the water-binding capacity of the muscle fibres), maltodextrin (a thickening agent), nitrites (to prevent bacterial growth) and antioxidants (to prevent colour and flavour loss).
What is the best way to store them?
Deli meats need to be refrigerated at a temperature of 4°C or less. They should be stored in airtight plastic bags and placed into the coldest part of the fridge. You should eat them within three days of purchase. Whole cut deli meats – such as sliced beef or chicken – can also be frozen for up to two months. Consume prepackaged meats three to five days after opening. Do not eat after the use-by date.
Are there any health risks?
Listeria is a food-borne bacteria found in soil and water. Animals can carry it without appearing ill, and can therefore contaminate animal products such as deli meats. The bacteria is killed by pasteurisation and cooking, but deli meats can become contaminated after processing and before packaging. Listeria can survive refrigerator temperatures, and since deli meats are generally served cold (that is, without being cooked, which would kill the bacteria), this increases the likelihood of contamination by listeria.
Eating such contaminated food can cause listeria infection, or listeriosis, which is a rare 'flu-like illness. Most healthy people can eat this food, but listeriosis is very dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn babies. For this reason, pregnant women are advised to avoid all deli meats during the whole of their pregnancy.
Why is sodium nitrite added?
Sodium nitrite is a preservative added to many processed and manufactured meat products. It helps to prevent the growth of bacteria, which can make the meat turn rancid. Sodium nitrite is also added to processed meats to improve their colour, as well as to enhance flavour. However, according to research, nitrites have the potential to form potent cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. A number of studies have shown a convincing link between processed meats and an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
Is water added to deli meats?
It is perfectly legal for deli meats to have water added, but it must be clearly indicated on the pack. Because food is sold by weight, this means you are paying for water, so check the label to see where water features on the ingredients list. Remember, the list shows ingredients in order of descending weight.
How do red meat and deli meats differ nutritionally?
Red meat – such as beef, lamb and veal – is high in protein and contains essential nutrients including vitamin B12, iron, zinc and omega-3 fat. It is recommended we eat red meat up to three to four times a week. Processed meat, however, is high in fat, salt, nitrates and many other additives. The World Cancer Research Fund recommends avoiding processed meats altogether. The best choices at the deli are the whole cuts of meat or poultry.
Process – what is it?
Using salt or a salt solution to preserve raw meats and bring out their full flavours. Curing can be dry (coating meat with salts and seasoning) or wet (injecting meat with salt solution).
Gradual dehydration of pieces of meat cut to a specific uniform shape. The uniform size of meat permits equal and simultaneous drying of whole batches of meat, making it a popular method.
This process is the conversion of carbohydrates into preservative organic acids under anaerobic conditions, which makes the conditions unsuitable for undesirable micro-organisms.
Fermenting food in brine, a salt water solution.
Roasting or curing meat in the presence of a natural wood smoke. Today, meat can be smoked by adding a smoked liquid or powder, or by adding an artificial ‘smoked’ flavour, which is made using various chemicals.