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Sub, hoagie, grinder, or hero—take your pick, there’s no easier lunch than a throw-together sandwich stacked high with deli meat. While deli meat has a lot of things going for it (affordable, delicious, high-protein), overall health isn’t necessarily one of them.

Processed meats—including some cold cuts like ham, salami, and pepperoni—have been linked to colorectal cancer, according to the World Health Organization (1). The fact that these meats tend to be high in saturated fat, additives like nitrates and sugar, and sodium likely has something to do with it (2, 3, 4). The way they’re processed—which typically involves smoking and/or curing—can also contribute to cancer risk (5).

That said, not all deli meat is the devil, according to registered dietitian Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N. Here’s how to choose the healthiest deli meat the next time a sandwich is calling your name.


About the Expert

Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist and nationally recognized nutrition expert with a focus on culinary nutrition and communications.


Is Deli Meat Bad For You?

Not necessarily. “I don’t like to refer to foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’; I would put deli meat in the ‘sometimes’ food category,” says Levinson. “Deli meat is a good source of protein, but it’s generally high in sodium, and some cuts can be high in saturated fat, so moderation is key.”

It’s also important to note that deli meat falls on a spectrum. Just because deli meat tends to be high in sodium and saturated fat, doesn’t mean every cut at the meat counter is. The only way to know for sure is to check the nutrition label for things like sodium, saturated fat, and additives like sugar, natural flavors, or preservatives. In general, the shorter the ingredients list, the better.

How to Choose Healthier Deli Meat

If you’re already plotting your next double-decker, here’s what Levinson recommends looking for when selecting the healthiest deli meat at the grocery store.

Head to the deli counter

“Choose fresh off-the-bone deli meat over pre-packaged lunch meat when possible,” says Levinson. Pre-packaged meat tends to contain more preservatives and additives that extend its shelf life. Avoid smoked options, since meats cooked at high temperatures can contribute to cancer risk (5). Ask if any options are cooked fresh. For example, Whole Foods’ In House Santa Maria Turkey is cooked on-site with olive oil, fresh herbs, and spices.

Minimize added ingredients

Many lunch meats include sugary rubs or sodium-laden seasonings. Check the label for options lower in sodium and sugar. You’ll also want to look out for nitrates—a compound found in processed meats that can produce harmful cancer-causing nitrosamines in your body (6). “Look for nitrate-free or “no nitrate added” products. These meats still have nitrates in them, but they come from natural sources like celery powder,” says Levinson.

Choose lean cuts

Some deli meats, like bologna, salami, and pepperoni, are notoriously high in saturated fat—which can increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol and put you at a higher risk for heart disease (7). “Choose the leanest cut of meat like turkey breast, roast beef, and lean ham,” says Levinson.

Source higher-quality meat

Animals that eat from phytochemically rich landscapes are healthier. This in turn makes the meat harvested from that animal more nutrient-dense (8). “If you’re looking to load up on vitamins and minerals, opt for organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed cuts when possible,” registered dietitian Melissa Sallee, RD previously told The Edge.

MORE MEAT

The Healthiest Deli Meat You Can Buy

At the grocery store now? Here are a few of the best brands to ask for if you don’t feel like socializing at the deli counter.

Boar’s Head Boar’s Head Simplicity

Boar’s Head is widely available at deli counters across the country, making Boar’s Head Simplicity—the brand’s line of healthier deli meat—an obvious go-to. Made with humanely raised animals, these delicious cold cuts have no antibiotics, added hormones, artificial ingredients, preservatives, nitrates, or nitrites. For example, their Oven-Roasted Beef has only one ingredient: cap-off top-round beef. From Applewood-Smoked Uncured Ham to Tuscan Roasted Turkey Breast, these cold cuts make the perfect addition to sandwiches, salads, and snack boards.

Applegate Organic Organic Uncured Black Forest Ham

For those days you simply can’t make it to the deli counter (that line is no joke), Applegate is a solid backup. Their organic deli slices are antibiotic- and hormone-free, and avoid nitrates, artificial ingredients, and GMOs. Their list of flavor and meat options is vast, but you can’t go wrong with classic Oven-Roasted Turkey Breast, Uncured Black Forest Ham, or grass-fed Roast Beef.

Trader Joe's Organic Oven Roasted Turkey Breast

If you’re a Trader Joe’s diehard then you already know the deli counter isn’t an option. However, not all of TJ’s pre-packaged options are loaded with preservatives. For example, their Organic Oven Roasted Turkey Breast has just three ingredients: organic turkey breast, water, and sea salt. Better yet, the turkeys are raised free-range, with no added hormones or antibiotics. The Organic Chicken Breast slices feature a similar ingredient list, making them a good option for a quick boost of protein.

True Story Organic Thick Cut Oven Roasted Chicken Breast

Next time you find yourself at Sprouts or Target, look out for True Story Organic deli meat. True Story Organic keeps the ingredients in its healthier deli meats squeaky clean, and the brand’s mission to support farmers, producers, and growers in the process is admirable. The Oven Roasted Turkey Breast and the Uncured Wildflower Honey & Maple Ham are classic picks, but don’t sleep on the Thick Cut Oven Roasted Chicken Breast—it’s good for everything from a quick teriyaki bowl to a high-protein salad.

Whole Foods 365 Organic Cracked Black Pepper Turkey Breast

We know, we know—if you don’t shop at Whole Foods you likely have the impression that it’s spendy, too. That’s because you aren’t familiar with the Whole Foods 365 line, the brand’s budget option. The nutrition profile of 365 deli meats ranges from okay (like the Organic Honey Maple Uncured Ham) to decent (like the Organic Oven-Roasted Chicken Breast or Cracked Pepper Turkey). Just look out for the sodium which clocks in at 20 percent of the daily value and added natural flavors—which the other options on this list avoid.

What Is the Unhealthiest Deli Meat?

The more processed, the unhealthier a deli meat typically is. Highly processed cuts like salami, pepperoni, pastrami, bologna, and bacon typically have more sodium, plus, they’ve been linked to cancer (1). In general, brands that can hold up on the shelf (and in your fridge) for weeks to months—think: Oscar Mayer, Great Value, and Land O’ Frost—are among the unhealthiest deli meat options you can buy.

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