Fan of ham, Devon, sliced beef or salami? Here’s what you need to know to make the healthiest choices.
Dashing through the supermarket, you take one look at the lengthy deli queue and make an executive decision to just grab a pack of ham from the fridge section instead. After all, they’re basically the same, right? Actually no. Not all hams are equal. And by-passing the deli could be putting your health at risk.
Types of deli meats
These are your BEST choice. Think ham off the bone, roasted beef, corned beef, turkey breast and all the meats that get sliced in front of you. Whole cuts are the best choice for your health, as they are less likely to contain as much salt and as many additives.
Pressed meat products
Beware the salt and additives. Chicken loaf, multi-part turkey breasts and some hams are prepared from pieces of meat which are cut and pressed together to form the shape of whole meat or large sausage. They must contain at least 66 per cent meat - which leaves a lot of room for other things. Most pressed meat products have water added and then additives like thickeners and phosphates to bind them together.
They are also high in salt (in many products salt is the third most plentiful ingredient after meat and water). Most pressed meats also have the preservative sodium nitrite added to prevent bacterial growth. However, nitrites have been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer.
These cuts are popular pre-packed in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, so even if it looks similar to a ham off the bone, it’s usually a pressed meat.
These are best left alone. That salami or pastrami contains a minimum of 30 per cent meat (where ‘meat’ includes all parts of the carcass including offal and fat).
These sausage-style meats have undergone processing such as smoking, drying, salting, curing, fermenting, pickling and cooking.
The majority of these cooking processes result in a product that is extremely high in salt. For example, just 100g of salami can contain up to your entire daily limit for salt. In addition, they often contain many other preservatives such as sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate, which have both been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer.
Processed meats are the highest in saturated (or ‘bad’) fat - 100g salami can have up to half your day’s worth of saturated fat! So all things considered, processed meats (also found in the fridge section of the supermarket), are best left on the shelf.
Deli meats need to be refrigerated in airtight plastic bags and placed into the coldest part of the fridge (less than 4∞C) where they’ll last about three days. Whole cuts such as sliced beef or chicken, can also be frozen for up to two months. Eat pre-packaged meats within three to five days after opening and be sure not to eat after the use-by date.
Are there any health risks?
Pregnant women are advised to avoid all deli meats during their pregnancy as they are one of the most common foods found to harbour the bacteria listeria. This can lead to listeriosis, which is very dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn babies.
You may have heard the one about ham and cancer, too. Preservatives like sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate are added to processed meats to make them last longer and enhance their colour and flavour. However, a number of studies have shown a convincing link between eating processed meats and an increased risk of cancer. This is due to potentially dangerous compounds formed when we eat these preservatives. So, the Cancer Council recommends we eat processed meat rarely, if at all.
Your best choices
Your healthiest choices are the whole cuts of meat as they are less processed. Try:
sliced roast beef
sliced ham off the bone
sliced chicken breast
sliced turkey breast
Have you seen the back of the pack? Processed meats can contain many additives and large amounts of salt. So, it pays to check the back of the pack. The amount of actual meat is written first.
HFG tip: Beware the labels that claim to have ‘no artificial flavours or colours’. Many still contain preservatives, natural colours and flavours and are also high in salt and/or saturated fat.