5 Things to Know About Deli Meats

August 09, 2017

The SupermarketGuru guide to deli meats - all you need to know about these convenient back-to-school lunchbox fillers.

Take a look the next time you are in the dairy department (where you can find these prepackaged and hanging on hooks) or in the ready to slice deli section, and you'll find scores of varieties. If you are unfamiliar with a type of deli meat, ask for a sample – sometimes the flavoring or texture might be a surprise (either good or bad) and in this category it is always wise to try a sample before you buy!

1. There are three types of cold cuts

Whole cuts: cuts of meats or poultry that are cooked and then sliced (for examples: roast beef, corned beef, turkey breast), sectioned and formed products and processed products. Whole cuts are exactly what they sound like – a section of meat or poultry that has been cooked, possibly flavored with salt, spices or sugars. Typically these are the more expensive type of cold cuts.

Sectioned and formed meat products: restructured meat products – such as multi part turkey breasts or cooked hams. They are prepared from chunks or pieces of meat and are bonded together to form a single piece.

Processed meats (sausages): the majority of what we call cold cuts. There are two methods for preparing the ingredients: emulsion prepared where the meat is finely chopped and the hydrophobic proteins react with fat, the opposite protein, and the hydrophilic will react with water to hold fat in the solution (bologna, Vienna sausages, hot dogs) ... and non emulsion which typically are coarser grinds.

2. Read the fine print

One of the questions I'm most asked about has to do with "nitrates" or "nitrites" that are listed in the ingredients on some cold cut packages. Sodium Nitrite helps prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism in humans and is also used alone or in conjunction with sodium nitrate as a color fixative in cured meat and poultry products (bologna, hot dogs, bacon). During the cooking process, nitrites combine with amines naturally present in meat to form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds. It is also suspected that nitrites can combine with amines in the human stomach to form N-nitroso compounds. These compounds are known carcinogens and have been associated with cancer of the oral cavity, urinary bladder, esophagus, stomach and brain.

3. Food Safety 
To protect against food illnesses the government advises consumers to thoroughly cook raw animal products; thoroughly wash all food that is to be eaten raw like fruits and vegetables; keep foods to be eaten raw separate from uncooked meats, and wash hands, knives and cutting boards with hot soapy water. Also, be sure to watch out for the juices from processed meats and sausages ... it can transmit the bacteria, so wash with hot water and soap anything that comes in contact with the juices.

4. Like Paying For Water?
It is perfectly legal for food companies to add a water, sodium and water or even water and spices solution to many of the lunch meats including ham, roast beef and turkey; but they must be labeled clearly and state the exact percentage of solution that has been added. For example, "10% water-added," or "Contains Up To 10% Added Moisture" – which means you are paying for one pound of water for every ten pounds of meat that you buy.

Since food is sold by weight it's important to read the labels, not only for the declaration of how much water or other solution has been added, but to see where "water" is listed in the ingredients.

5. Store it properly
No food lasts forever – especially when it comes to cold cuts. While some of these products have natural or chemical preservatives to extend shelf life, packaged cold cuts once opened will only last 3 to 5 days. Cold cuts sliced fresh from the deli 1-3 days if stored properly. Be sure to use an airtight plastic bag to store them and put in the coldest part of the refrigerator.
Freshness dating of processed meats is a voluntary program and not mandated by the federal government. However, if there is a date on the package, by law, it must state clearly what the date signifies:

 "Sell by" date means nothing more than telling the store how long to display the product for sale. Never buy the product after this date. 

"Best if used by" date means the flavor, taste, and quality of the product will be at its optimum before this date. It has nothing to do with freshness or safety. 

"Use by" date means just that – don't consume the product after this date.