Nothing beats the convenience of a sandwich for lunch on your busiest days, when you just can't seem to find the time for any sort of break. Not only are they quick and easy to make, but with nothing but bread, cheese, maybe a few veggies, and your preferred deli meat, this lunch option is incredibly affordable as well. But when it comes to eating processed meat, some recent research has revealed that this food may have potentially dangerous side effects, like an increased risk of certain cancers or diseases. These findings—and others like it—may have many people wondering, is deli meat bad for you?
Deli meat often comes with many preservatives, higher levels of sodium, and additives, which are some of the main reasons they've been linked to negative side effects. However, processed meats also provide boosts of protein, vitamins, and minerals, and the convenience of them makes it easier to incorporate these helpful nutrients into your diet than having to cook and prepare meat on your own.
In order to learn more about whether or not deli meat is actually bad for you or if the positive effects potentially outweigh the risks, we talked with expert dietitians, in addition to gathering information based on the latest research regarding this deliciously convenient sandwich meat.
The downsides of eating deli meat
It contains a lot of sodium
Deli meat is made to last, which often requires the use of sodium to help preserve its freshness. And while everyone needs sodium for their body to function properly, too much sodium can have a negative impact on your health.
"Excessive sodium consumption is associated with increased blood pressure, which can contribute to cardiovascular problems like heart disease and stroke," says Mary Sabat MS, RDN, LD. Not only that, but excessive sodium "can lead to fluid retention in the body, causing bloating and swelling, and it can also strain the kidneys, potentially leading to kidney problems or exacerbating existing conditions," says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, at Balance One Supplements.
Thankfully, there are some companies trying to make better options for those watching their sodium intake, and "choosing lower-sodium options or consuming deli meats in moderation can help mitigate these health risks," says Sabat.
Deli meat can contribute to an increased risk of disease
"The processing methods used in deli meats can result in the formation of harmful compounds like nitrosamines, which are associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, including colorectal cancer," says Best. "And the high levels of saturated fats often found in processed deli meats can contribute to elevated cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions."
A report published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that consumption of processed meat was associated with an increased risk of ischemic heart disease, and a review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that consuming processed meat was linked to greater mortality rates and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
There is potential for contamination
A potential side effect that people may not be aware of when it comes to their deli meat is that "Deli meats have a higher likelihood of bacterial contamination compared to freshly cooked meats," says Sabat. "Listeria monocytogenes, a harmful bacterium, is of particular concern with deli meats and can cause serious illness, especially in pregnant women, older adults, and individuals with weakened immune systems."
In fact, the CDC reported a listeria outbreak earlier this year from deli meat and cheese, saying that this bacteria can be spread easily through food preparation surfaces, hands, and manual deli slicers. Even though this particular outbreak was reported over as of March 29, 2023, this is still a common occurrence and always a risk when you purchase deli meat.
If you're concerned but still want to be able to use deli meat as an option for quick and easy lunches, Sabat says that "Proper food handling, storage, and adhering to expiration dates can help minimize the risk of contamination."
You'll most likely consume some additives & preservatives
Similarly to the sodium used to help extend the life of sliced deli meat, you'll also find additives and preservatives in many of your favorite processed meat products.
"Deli meat often contains additives and preservatives like nitrites and sulfites to enhance flavor, extend shelf life, and prevent bacterial growth," says Sabat. "While these additives are generally recognized as safe by regulatory authorities, some studies have linked them to adverse health effects, including increased cancer risk."
Some of the most common additives found in processed meats are things like sodium phosphate, potassium nitrite, and sodium nitrate, so look out for these on nutrition labels. Sabat adds that when you're shopping, "choosing natural or organic deli meats without artificial additives may be a preferable option."
Benefits of deli meat
You can get a boost of protein
The discussion of whether deli meat is bad for you can be a complex one because while it often contains a lot of sodium and preservatives, it can also provide a boost of lean protein.
"Deli meats, such as turkey or chicken breast, can be a good source of lean protein, which is essential for muscle growth, repair, and overall health," says Best. "And, choosing leaner cuts of deli meats—such as turkey or chicken breast—can be a healthier alternative to fatty meats, as they contain less saturated fat and can contribute to a balanced diet. The protein content in deli meats can aid in appetite control and satiety, making them a satisfying option for those aiming to manage their weight or maintain muscle mass.
In fact, in just two slices of an average deli meat chicken breast, you're already getting about 7 grams of protein.
Many deli meats contain essential nutrients
"In addition to protein, deli meats can provide essential nutrients like iron and B vitamins, which play crucial roles in energy production, oxygen transport, and overall vitality," says Best.
Sabat adds that some deli meat can contain zinc as well, which is known to be essential for boosting the health of your immune system.
So, is deli bad for you?
As you can see, the answer to this question is quite complex.
At the end of the day, deli meat can have some positive effects on your health and overall diet, such as providing you with lean protein, B vitamins, zinc, and iron. "[However], its high sodium content, association with processed meat risks, potential for contamination, and use of additives and preservatives are important factors to consider," says Sabat.
The fact that research shows many negative, serious side effects like increased risk of cancer, high cholesterol, and heart disease proves that deli meat really should be consumed at a moderate level.
"Moderation, choosing lower-sodium options, and opting for fresh, unprocessed meats and always opting for organic options can help mitigate the potential negative effects on health," says Sabat.
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