The Best (and Worst) Lunchmeats for Your Sandwich

When it comes to lunch, no wine, stinky cheese and crusty bread for the American palate. Leave that stuff to the French. For Americans, a lunchmeat sandwich carries the day. Every week, 15 percent of Americans purchase processed deli meat. That’s 45 million people. According to one survey, more than half of all Americans chow down at least once or twice a week on processed meat. In 2014, the deli meat industry totaled over $11 billion in sales. That’s no bologna, as they say in the meat biz.


With all that processed meat being consumed, which is the wisest health choice the sandwich lover can make? Frankly, the wisest choice is to avoid processed lunchmeats altogether. The processing of meat involves all sorts of unhealthy additives, not to mention mountains of salt (one slice of many lunchmeats contains more salt than an ounce of Cheetos) and nitrites. Sodium nitrite, a preservative, can trigger migraines in the sensitive population, and has been linked in some studies to cancer. The body combines the sodium nitrite with the naturally occurring amines in meat to form nitrosamine, a suspected carcinogen. Studies have shown that regular consumers of processed meats raise their risk of stomach cancer by 18 percent. (The risk of developing stomach cancer is pretty low, so an 18 percent increase is not catastrophic.) Also, don’t be fooled by so-called “preservative-free” lunchmeats. Many of them contain cultured celery extract, which contains as much nitrites as or more nitrites than meats with preservatives.

Another lunchmeat worry is listeriosis, a foodborne illness caused by the listeria monocytogene bacteria. The sodium nitrite in lunchmeat retards the growth of listeria, but after three to five days in the fridge, once the meat package is opened, listeria can still grow (the bacteria grows even under refrigerated conditions), and the meat may not look or smell any different than uncontaminated meat. Listeriosis can cause headaches, fever, vomiting and other decidedly undesired symptoms. Worse, in pregnant women the bacteria can be passed on to the fetus, even if the mother displays no symptoms of infection, and can cause serious complications.

Still, for the determined deli meat lover, which meat to turn to? From worst to best, here’s the lowdown on processed deli meat.

8. Salami

Sorry salami lovers. Your salty, meaty, garlicky, fat-speckled lunch slices rank at the bottom of the health scale. Just two ounces of salami will add 220 calories to your daily count. Not only that, but salami has the highest fat, cholesterol and salt content of all the lunchmeats. Those two ounces will get you 9 grams of fat—3 grams of that being saturated fat (the bad stuff)—around 470 milligrams of salt, and 25 milligrams of cholesterol (about 8 percent of your suggested maximum).

7. Bologna

Bologna tends to be a divisive lunchmeat. Either people can’t stomach even looking at the spongy, pinkish meat, or they can’t wait to chow down on that delicious Italian hoagie. Sadly for the latter, bologna ranks just above salami on the health balance sheet. Two ounces—two slices—of bologna will get you 150 calories, almost 3 grams of saturated fat and 300 mg of salt.

6. Pastrami

Pastrami on rye? Think twice. Two slices of pastrami (and be real—any pastrami sandwich worth its salt has way more than two slices) delivers a full 25 percent of your salt allowance and 11 percent of your cholesterol allowance. On the bright side, it also delivers 25 percent of your daily protein needs.

5. Honey-glazed ham

Two ounces of honey-glazed ham contains only 60 calories, and serves up 20 percent of your protein intake. That’s the good news. The downside is that it's loaded with salt, delivering, like pastrami, 25 percent of your daily allowance. Back to the positive ham attributes, it is surprisingly low in fat, with only 2 percent of your daily allowance.

4. Roast beef

Low salt? Check. High protein? Check. If red meat is your thing, roast beef is the way to go. Not only that, but it is high in potassium and iron. Then again, it is also high in cholesterol, with 2 ounces delivering about 11 percent of your daily allowance. And there’s that salt again, with 25 percent of your allowance.

3. Black forest smoked ham

Equal to honey-glazed ham in caloric value—just 60 calories in 2 ounces—black forest smoked ham wins out due to its lower salt content, just 19 percent of your daily allowance vs. 25 percent for honey-glazed.

2. Oven-roasted turkey

Surprisingly not at the top of the list, roasted turkey is still a winner. Low calorie, low fat, high protein (26 percent of your needs in two ounces). Bingo.

1. Smoked turkey

And the winner is… smoked turkey. This meat delivers on all the attributes of oven-roasted turkey, plus it is lower in salt content, just 10 percent of your daily allowance, vs. 19 percent for oven-roasted. No gloating, however: Smoked turkey still saddles you with 9 percent of your cholesterol allowance in a two-ounce serving.

So what is the bottom line for cold cut lovers? Whatever your preference, stick to a minimal number of slices per sandwich, ideally no more than four per sammy. Throw in some real food with your lunchmeat, like tomatoes, romaine lettuce, cukes, and the like. Avoid white bread and go for whole grain. Mustard better than mayo to reduce fat intake (although mustard has plenty of that old devil salt). And try not to eat lunchmeat every day. All things, as they say, in moderation.

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