Are Cold Cuts Healthy? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say

Learn how to shop for the healthiest lunch meat plus find out the health risks associated with eating cold cuts too often.

Deli turkey, ham and roast beef are some of the most commonly eaten cold cuts in the U.S. Adding these sliced deli meats to your sandwich can make for a tasty lunch—and they're convenient, too. But you might be wondering if processed deli meat is healthy or not. We break down the science and what you need to know to shop for healthy cold cuts.

FYI: If you're pregnant, make sure to heat up your cold cuts before eating to reduce any risk of Listeria.

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Benefits of Cold Cuts

Eating cold cuts is convenient—no cutting or cooking is required. Simply buy the meat, slap it on a sandwich or in a wrap and head out the door. They are also high in protein and beneficial vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12. On the flip side, they are high in sodium and some are high in saturated fat, both of which you'll want to be especially wary of if you have heart disease or high blood pressure.

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Cold Cuts and Heart Health

Eating high amounts of processed meats can increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. This is related to many factors, but one culprit is sodium. Sodium is about 400 percent higher, on average, in processed meats than in unprocessed meats. "Too much sodium stiffens our blood vessels and stresses our heart and kidneys," says Sam Teece, M.P.H., RD, a chef and dietitian at Sam Teece Nutrition Consulting.

The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (for some groups even less), but we're taking in much more. Kids in the U.S. eat an average of 3,279 mg of sodium per day, and adults average more than 3,400 mg per day. With cold cuts, the sodium adds up quickly given that just one ounce of deli turkey can have more than 500 mg of sodium. Add 150 mg from a slice of cheese and 140 mg in each slice of bread, and a sandwich may be close to 1,000 mg of sodium, not including any extra sodium-containing condiments like mustard or mayo.

Some cold cuts are also high in saturated fat, which is also linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. But, recent research that found adverse health effects from processed meats pointed more to compounds in the meat like heme iron, L-carnitine or even sodium, than the saturated fat content. Regardless, if you're trying to keep your heart healthy, consider other sandwich options like tuna, salmon or even hummus, and try to keep your cold cut intake moderate.

Cold Cuts and Cancer

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Most cold cuts are considered processed meats. The American Institute for Cancer Research defines processed meat as "meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives."

Along with cold cuts, other processed meats include bacon, salami, bologna, hot dogs and sausages. Fresh chicken, turkey, beef, pork and fish that have not been modified are considered unprocessed meats.

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meats as "carcinogenic to humans" and red meat as "probably carcinogenic." Red meat is any meat from a mammal (e.g., beef, veal, pork, goat, lamb and bison).

Research is ongoing to determine why processed and red meats are associated with cancer, but it could be related to carcinogenic compounds that form during meat processing or cooking. "We know that when nitrites combine with the amines in meat, they create nitrosamines, which some studies have found to be carcinogenic," says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Eating in Color. "And according to WHO, eating processed meat is associated with small increases in the risk of cancer—and the more you eat, the greater the risk."

Read More: Is Eating Red Meat a Big Cancer Risk?

Cold Cuts and Nitrates/Nitrites

Sodium nitrates and sodium nitrites are salt compounds that naturally occur in the soil and are in many fruits and vegetables, such as celery, leafy greens and cabbage. In fact, most of the nitrates we eat come from vegetables and drinking water. When nitrates come in contact with saliva in the mouth, they convert to nitrites.

Sodium nitrate is added to cold cuts for preservation and to inhibit bacteria growth. Nitrate is converted to sodium nitrite when it comes in contact with bacteria in the meat. Most manufacturers now directly add nitrite to the meat.

Nitrates and nitrites themselves do not cause cancer, but there is concern that they may produce carcinogenic compounds in the body or during processing or cooking. Because consumers are wary, some manufacturers now cure meats with celery powder since celery is naturally high in nitrate. These meats are labeled "uncured" and "celery powder" is in the ingredients list instead of "sodium nitrite." Largeman-Roth adds, "Also, it's interesting to note the potentially beneficial effects that have been found from eating nitrate-rich vegetables, such as beets. I would say the jury is still out, but it's still smart to keep your intake of processed meats moderate."

Tips for Shopping for Healthy Lunches

While there is convincing evidence that cold cuts can up your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, this doesn't mean you have to nix them from your diet altogether. They are an easy and convenient way to get protein, iron and vitamin B12. So how often should you eat them? "I would recommend eating cold cuts no more than a couple of times a week," says Largeman-Roth.

Here's how to healthfully incorporate cold cuts into your diet:

  • Buy reduced- or low-sodium: This will reduce your daily sodium intake. In addition, Largeman-Roth says, "Ham and turkey are both very lean. Look for brands that don't use antibiotics. Also, opt for ones with no added sugar."
  • Go nitrate/nitrite free: The jury is still out on nitrates and nitrites, but if you want to play it safe, purchase nitrate-free meats, which are usually labeled "uncured."
  • Purchase unprocessed meats: Next time you are food shopping, bypass the deli counter and head to the meat and seafood departments. Buy lean, fresh proteins like chicken, turkey or fish. Unprocessed meats are not as strongly linked to chronic diseases as processed meats. Teece adds, "As a chef and dietitian, I prefer to slice baked or grilled chicken and add it to a sandwich, or make a hummus and avocado spread sandwich loaded with veggies because it looks and tastes better. There are so many options that are superior in flavor as well as better for your body than processed cold cuts, so it's a no-brainer to ditch cold cuts in my house."
  • Switch up your lunch: If you eat sandwiches every day, mix it up. Bring your dinner leftovers for lunch, make a salad or make a "snack plate" by assembling carrot sticks, hummus, tuna salad, cherry tomatoes and grapes. You will increase your fruit and veggie intake while slashing the sodium, saturated fat and preservatives.
  • Think about your overall diet: Do you enjoy a few slices of bacon on the weekends at brunch? Then perhaps you could live without the daily deli meats at lunch. Think about your diet as a whole. Are you consuming other foods high in sodium (e.g., bread, cheese, pizza)? How frequently? Make swaps accordingly to decrease your consumption of cold cuts.
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