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).
That said, not all deli meat is the devil, according to registered dietitian Jessica Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN. Here’s how to choose the healthiest deli meat the next time a sandwich is calling your name.
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. While you’re at the counter 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 (5). “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 (6). “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 (7). “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.
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.
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.