What is Deli Meat?

Deli meats – also known as lunch meats, cold cuts and sliced meats are pre-cooked, cured meats, that are ready to eat and can be served hot or cold. They are popular in sandwiches or served on a charcuterie board as an appetizer with cheese, dips, olives, and nuts. Most cured meats are meats that have been preserved by adding chemical preservatives like sodium nitrite. Some deli meats like traditional prosciutto are cured with just salt, but this is less common. Most deli meats are cured by using nitrites either in the form of sodium nitrite, or cultured celery extracts.

First and foremost, the healthiest deli meat would be free of nitrites. Nitrites in processed meats combine with amino acids found in animal protein which allows nitrites to form nitrosamines, the cancer-causing compound. This is what differentiates eating nitrites from spinach or beets versus consuming them in a cooked meat product.

Deli meats can be purchased pre-sliced in vacuum packs which are typically for sale next to the meat and dairy departments of grocery stores. They can also be purchased at the deli counter sliced to order by weight. There is no difference between the meat product available at the deli counter versus the meats that are pre-sliced and packaged.

However, it will be hard to find organic deli meats at the deli counter because organic deli meats cannot contact conventional deli meats so the store would need to have a dedicated slicer. Therefore they are sold pre-sliced and packaged or sold as whole roasts, like our Organic Mini Ham.

People with food allergies often prefer to purchase pre-packaged meats because they can read the full list of ingredients, claims and certifications specific to that product. Priority allergens like dairy, gluten, soy and mustard must be listed on a food label.

Common deli meats include bacon, sausages (hotdogs, smokies, pepperoni), bologna, salami, pastrami, and varieties of ham, turkey, beef, and chicken sliced lunch meats.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulates the names of certain deli products like Bacon, which can only be used if it is cured with nitrites. The CFIA defines bacon as pork belly cured with nitrites. This is why our bacon is called Breakfast Strips.

What is the healthiest Deli Meat?

How is Deli Meat Made?

Not all deli meats are created equal and it starts with the cut of meat and ends with what’s added to the brine. A deli roast can be made with chunks of whole muscle meat that are bound together through a brining and tumbling process, (think Roast Turkey Breast).Or a deli product can be created with mechanically deboned meat cuts that are ground into a slurry, (think bologna) then formed and sliced into luncheon meat. The same goes for sausages. A quality smokie has chunks of real meat versus a hotdog which is more homogeneous in texture.

What most deli products have in common is the brining process. In conventional deli meats the brine includes a combination of salt, water, sugars (dextrose, corn syrup solids), spices, herbs and preservatives like sodium nitrite and potassium phosphate. Nitrites help preserve the meat and give them a nice pink colour and distinctive salty flavour. Phosphates help retain moisture and bind the meat cuts together to form a perfectly congealed roast which holds together when sliced.

In organic deli meats the brine is mostly sea salt, water, herbs and spices and in most cases no nitrites from celery extracts are added with the exception of some brands of organic bacon. Natural starches like potato are used to replace phosphates and the deli roast or sausage is made with lean whole muscle cuts that are organic.

What’s Hiding Inside Deli Meat?

When deli meat is pre-sliced and packaged the list of ingredients and allergens must be displayed on the label. As mentioned above, common allergens like mustard, gluten, soy and milk must be listed in the ingredients on packaged deli meats. It is also important to note that deli ingredients do not change from a brand’s pre-packaged “Black Forest Ham” to their deli roast “Black Forest Ham”. It’s the same recipe, one is purchased at the deli counter by weight, and the other is pre-sliced and packaged. Most delis don’t list the ingredients at the deli counter, but you can ask the staff for this information.

Below is a chart comparing ingredients found in conventional Ham vs. organic Ham.

Deli Product Conventional Black Forest Ham “Natural” Black Forest Ham 1 “Natural” Black Forest Ham 2 Organic
Smoked Ham
Animal Pork Pork Pork Organic Pork
Allergens Mustard Mustard No No
Nitrites Sodium nitrite Cultured celery extract Cultured celery extract No
Sugar(s) Glucose Cane sugar No Organic honey
Preservatives Sodium & potassium phosphate Vinegar, lemon juice powder Vinegar No
Other Sodium erythorbate, caramel, sulphites, salt, smoke Natural flavour, smoke, sea salt sea salt, smoke Organic potato starch, sea salt, natural fruit & spice extracts, organic rosemary, sodium bicarbonate, smoke

Other ingredients found in deli meats like sausage, salami or bologna can include dextrose, wheat, milk ingredients, sodium ascorbate, lactic acid starter culture, corn syrup solids, sulphites and caramel.

What are the Healthiest Deli Meats?

The healthiest deli meats are preservative free and would be those derived from poultry; turkey, and chicken breast instead of beef or pork because the saturated fat content and calories per serving are much lower.

As an example, two to three slices of Black Forest Ham can be upwards of 260 calories with up to 19grams of fat, 30% saturated, and up to 310mg of sodium.

Three to four slices of Roast Turkey Breast deli meat can be as low as 50 calories, with 1% fat, 1% saturated and slightly less sodium.

In addition, there are less additives and preservatives added to poultry deli products than pork. Cultured celery extracts added to cure pork products are biochemically identical to sodium nitrite and are found in both “natural” and some organic deli meats like bacon. However, most “natural” poultry-based deli meats do not contain nitrites or celery extracts.

The healthiest deli meat available in Canada currently is the MCLEAN line of Organic sliced deli meats, and lean pork and beef products. Some examples include our Organic Oven Roast Turkey Breast, our “clean & lean” Turkey Bacon made with Turkey, honey, sea salt and smoke, and our Organic Pork Back Bacon which is low in saturated fat, low in calories and nitrite free.

In addition, you can also find roasts made in house at some grocery delis that are likely preservative free. However, it is important to clarify with the deli staff that they are made in house and are free of allergens of concern or added nitrites. Remember, the term “Natural” literally means nothing. It is an unregulated often misleading claim that is overused.

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