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What's really in your deli meat? How to decode labels on packaged ham, turkey and more

The deli aisle is packed with more options than ever. Here's what all those stickers really mean.
Frozen foods in a supermarket
Young woman doing grocery shopping in supermarket.michaeljung / Shutterstock / michaeljung
/ Source: TODAY

Deli meats are a go-to protein for millions of Americans every day at lunchtime. But your turkey and Swiss cheese midday routine may be hiding a few less than desirable ingredients.

Now, with so many different types of meat flooding the aisle these days, is there a surefire way to find the best one? Of course when you're buying pre-packaged meats and cheeses, you can peruse the nutritional information yourself.

But what does preservative free or nitrate free really mean? And is there such a thing as organic bologna?

Packaged Meat
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In addition to being conscious of what makes a healthier sandwich (like piling on veggies like NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt) and limiting how often you eat processed meats, it's good to be aware of what's actually in them — especially when it comes to watching your sodium and fat intake.

Nutritious Life CEO and founder Keri Glassman revealed to TODAY Food just how to decode what's really in the deli department. And if you're getting deli meat sliced at the counter, when in doubt, always ask the butcher what's in that meat and what that animal ate.

Worried about artificial ingredients? These stamps are a safe bet.

Certified organic

"The certified organic seal already means that food cannot contain genetically modified ingredients. If something is certified organic, it’s always non-GMO, but something that’s non-GMO certified is not always organic," Glassman told TODAY Food.

Buying organic meats in the deli section may make it a little easier to weed through the various meat options since you know there won't be any genetically modified extras, like soy additives or corn syrup. Still, organic deli meats can contain high levels of sodium so it's important to read the macro nutrition information as well.


According to Glassman, the meat from cattle that eat only grass contains two to three times the amount of conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) compared to grain-finished beef. CLAs are healthy fats associated with reduced cancer risk, reduced cardiovascular disease risk and better cholesterol levels. Grass-fed beef has also been found to have a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.

Making sandwiches
Want to know what's really in that packaged meat? Take a second to read the label in the grocery store.Getty Images

Buyer beware of these additives

Nitrates and Nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are used to cure processed meats like bacon, hot dogs and most deli meats. In addition to imparting a salty flavor, they also keep meats from growing harmful bacteria. In 2015, the World Health Organization and International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meats as a "Group 1" carcinogen — tobacco smoking and asbestos are also classified as "Group 1."

The WHO says, "over 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to high processed meat intake vs. 1 million deaths per year attributable to tobacco smoke."

Consuming processed meats that contain nitrites is OK once in a while, according to Glassman, who likes to save those times for eating out or when traveling since it's often harder to avoid processed foods on the road. But, if you're concerned, look for nitrate-free meats when shopping for the home. Keep in mind, however, that nitrates occur in natural compounds (usually in the form of celery salt) so it's important to look at sodium content of any packaged food.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. One sandwich with 2 ounces of sliced deli turkey contains between 360-590 milligrams of sodium and once combined with bread, mayonnaise and mustard you can easily reach up to half a day's limit.

Many widely available deli brands do have low-sodium deli meat offerings (about 115 milligrams per 2-ounce serving). There are also "no salt added" options, which usually contain about 35 milligrams per serving. Swapping mayo for aaspread like fresh avocado can also help cut down on the sodium and fat in your sandwich.


Carrageenan, which is extracted from a type of seaweed called red algae, is a gelling agent that's widely used throughout the food industry to help stabilize, thicken or improve the texture of processed foods like ice cream, deli meats, infant formula and more.

But Glassman says there's cause for concern. "There’s strong evidence that carrageenan is linked to cancer, damaging the gastrointestinal tract, diabetic precursors and inflammation," Glassman told TODAY Food, referencing research conducted by Dr. Dr. Joanne Tobacman, an internist based in Chicago.

To keep it simple, Glassman recommends looking "for products without the additive" and seeking out meats with as few unpronounceable extras as possible.

Applegate Farms, which sells popular deli meats like turkey, ham and sliced chicken, is sold at most grocery stores. The company recently re-formulated all of its products to be carrageenan free.

Glassman says it's still OK to enjoy your favorite meats, but in moderation. Just be sure to keep your daily sodium intake well balanced and meet your nutrient goals by stuffing that sub with fresh vegetables and fruits.