How to choose a healthier lunch meat, and 6 key ingredients to avoid

A sandwich with a couple of slices of deli meat is a cheap and quick brown-bag lunch, but the health warnings are clear: Processed meats have been linked to increased risk of cancers, diabetes and heart disease.

sandwich, turkey, swiss cheese, deli meat, lunch

Photo, Masterfile.

This post was originally published in June 2014 and has been updated.

A sandwich with a couple of slices of turkey and cheese is a cheap and quick-to-prepare brown-bag lunch, but the health warnings are clear: processed meats have been linked to increased risk of cancers, diabetes and heart disease. A new statement from a World Health Organization research agency classified processed meat — including bacon, hot dogs and lunch meats like salami — as carcinogenic. It also found that eating 50 grams daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent. Yikes.

Should we avoid processed and deli meats altogether, or are there any deli meats that are “safe” to eat?

We contacted Joy McCarthy, holistic nutritionist, author and owner of Joyous Health for her thoughts on the subject and how consumers can make wiser choices.

What do you make of the statement from the World Health Organization linking processed meats to cancer?

As long as you source good-quality meat then eating it once per week is not going to increase your risk for cancer. Good-quality meat means grass-fed and/or certified organic. Also worth considering is an animal’s nutritional profile is the direct result of what that animal eats. Therefore, factory-farmed animals raised on grains such as soy that may be GMO and treated with pesticides will have a different nutritional makeup than cows grazing on a pasture. It is important to eat a predominantly plant-based diet to counterbalance any negative effects of meat consumption. More fibre in one’s diet means less likelihood for cancer.

Related: 7 popular, healthy seeds and how to use them

Which is healthier: chicken, ham, turkey, bologna or roast beef? Is there a huge nutritional difference between each?

Bologna is basically cooked sausage made of cured beef, pork or a mixture of the two with added spices, salt, chemicals and preservatives — avoid! Ultimately, there isn’t much difference between any of these factory-farmed processed meats. The difference nutritionally is whether it’s certified organic or factory-farmed meat. Animals that are raised on a pasture tend to have a higher ratio of omega-3 fatty acids, and are fed food free of pesticides.

Which is the healthiest type: smoked, cured, salted, oven-roasted, or straight-cooked?

The processing of the deli meat doesn’t really matter because they all contain similar harmful ingredients, such as nitrates, to preserve the meat.

What ingredients do you think we should be avoiding?

Make sure your food always contains ingredients that you know, and can pronounce! Here is a list of ingredients you should avoid:

Also, be conscious of excess sodium. For example, Maple Leaf Natural Selections turkey has 570 mg sodium per serving, which is nearly half of our daily recommended intake (1000 to 1500 mg)! And keep in mind that food manufacturers are not required to list all the ingredients if they fall under spices and seasonings — something to keep in mind when you’re eyeballing the Cajun chicken or the honey-smoked ham. If you have common food allergies, check for wheat, soy, or milk products, which are sometimes added to deli meats. If you have digestive problems, it’s best to avoid carrageenan, which is a common ingredient.

Related: Get the recipe for Jamie Oliver’s mega veggie burgers

There are some brands that market their product as “preservative-free,” but the preservatives are just disguised under a different name. What so-called “natural ingredients” should we be on the look out for?

Cultured celery extract seems to be the most popular choice for the “natural” selections of deli meats. However, it still contains the same amount of potentially carcinogenic nitrates and, in some cases, more than brands that aren’t listed as “natural.”

When ordering from the deli-counter vs. buying pre-packed brands (where the list of ingredients is shown), which types of meat should we ask for?

Look for roast beef or chicken at the deli counter, where you can actually see that they are cutting the meat from the animal. Avoid the pre-packed stuff if you aren’t certain where it comes from, and if you don’t see the ingredients listed at the deli counter, make sure to ask the staff.

Joy advises that eating processed meats should really be kept at a minimum — on rare, special occasions. Instead of buying luncheon meat, try roasting a chicken on the weekend and use the sliced chicken instead. Or if you’re short on time, you can buy an already roasted chicken from the supermarket, then slice and sandwich.

Joy McCarthy, RNCP, ROHP, CNP, is the author of Joyous Health: Eat and Live Well without Dieting.


15 comments on “How to choose a healthier lunch meat, and 6 key ingredients to avoid

  1. Pingback: Irish moss: Detox and aid digestion with this new superfood

  2. ok I work at a deli and have two things to say. number 1- if you want to be healthy, eat something else. Don’t waste my time asking me what’s in the meat. Secondly, Those roasted chickens you buy are SO unhealthy. Far worse than most of the meats we sell. This makes me question the credibility of this pages author and sources.


    • Exactly. That has to be the most backassward advice to end with.


    • I don’t think people understand just how much crap is injected into those chickens before they’re cooked. They’re loaded with junk. Read your labels people! And the fact that the holistic nutritionist would ever recommend buying one is crazy. She just lost any credibility she had.


  3. I also work at a deli. I agree with the posting from Nick Our Big Companies producing all of the lunch meats “natural” ” no added hormones” and the list goes on and on.. These Big Producing Companies are severely misleading the consumers!! Our families do not eat from a deli or a “Sandwich Sub” companies as well. We cook a Turkey from scratch, however, there has been evidence These “Big Companies” are also injecting chemicals into these big birds before they are frozen.. So, we have been searching in area for Amish Farmers raising Turkey’s and Chicken’s. We still purchase our birds from grocers; still better than purchasing lunch meats from meat depts. or deli’s. There are many sights we have located guiding interested individuals to healthier eating..


  4. Why no.mention of the veggie ‘meats’? Surely theses are a safe alternative?


  5. I’m not sure that the staff at my local grocery store deli would be able to tell me what the pig ate for breakfast the morning it was slaughtered to make ham or sausages. The butcher at Black Angus Meats (in Mississauga), where we get a good portion of our cuts from, does provide that information however you pay a premium for going to a good butcher, and everyone is on a budget of some kind. Still, I find the information that the WHO pushed out this week a little over the top. I simply can’t see how eating a mortadella sandwich is in the same league as smoking or hanging out in a room full of asbestos!


    • Hey I am just a kid and scared because my mom fed us meat today and Thanks giving is coming up so is turkey safe to eat cause I really want to now ok plz reply


      • Yes, someone please share what they know about sliced turkey you can get at the deli for sandwhiches…I mean the turkey is just there and its already sliced…i dont watch the Deli-hand slice it. Could it mean that turkey has sodium nitrate? If someone cooked a turkey from scratch then sure I can expect its probably safe but thats not practical for the rest of the year until Thanksgiving and Christmas. And yes, the line on buying pre-roasted chickens form the grocery store is naive or ignorant because she should know that mass produced roasted chooks are “plumped” up…have you seen Costco roast chickens…there’s even air bubbles in the white meat…yeeewwwk …dang wish I was born vegetarian…raised with meat in your diet its hard to give up…but more and more we are avoiding processed meats. I don’t remember the last time I had bacon…but boy do I LOVE bacon.


      • i think any meat here in the USA is safe to eat. so yes turkey is safe to eat. HAPPY THANKS GIVING, TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILY


        • And i think you’re incredibly ignorant.


  6. I was really disappointed by this article, for the same reasons as the previous posters, most of the advice is not practical. The expert may as well have reccomended that I raise, slaughter and cook my own sandwich meat! And I also agree that reccomending a store bought roasted chicken is suspect too. The only advice that made sense to me was to eat a more plant based diet and get more fibre to help offset the consuption of meat/processed meat. I’d appreciate an expert with a more unbiased and scientific opinion not someone who thinks organic food is the solution. Organic foods do not have more fibre than non-organic foods.


  7. Store-roasted/bbq’d chicken can be extremely salty, probably salt-brined before cooking. Better to purchase fresh and cook at home. Roasting in an oven with convection program is the best what to cook most roast-type meats. I can get 4 meals for 2 adults out of a roast, be it beef, chicken, turkey, etc. That’s the most nutritious and economical method of consuming meats.


  8. Why are those roasted chickens SO unhealthy?


  9. Thanks for sharing these ideas on how to get healthier lunch meats. In my house we eat a lot of sandwiches as we are usually getting food quickly before going to all the activities that we have. Finding ways to get healthy wholesale deli meats would definitely help my family out and help me to feel better as I know that they are getting the nutrition that they need.


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