The 5 Things You NEED to Know About Deli Meats

The Lempert Report
April 06, 2016

How many types of cold cut meat and poultry product are there? What are the dangers of cold cuts? How much are you paying for water? How perishable are deli meats? Be sure to read the fine print.

1. There are three types of cold cut meat and poultry 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 that is then sliced. Typically these are the more expensive type of cold cuts. And they look like they came right from the animal.

Sectioned and formed meat products are 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. The substances that bind these together are non meat additives, meat emulsions and extracted proteins. Typically they are produced by extracting the meat proteins (by adding salt and massaging or tumbling the meat which brings these "sticky" proteins to the surface) or by adding non meat proteins. The meat becomes soft and pliable and is then shaped through the application of force using different molds or casings. It is then cooked to coagulate the proteins which bind the chunks of meat together in its new shape.

Processed meats (sausages) are the majority of what we call cold cuts. About 15% of all meat produced in the U.S. is used to make these which number at over 200 varieties. Sausage manufacturing includes any type of meat that is chopped, seasoned and formed into a symmetrical shape – for example, bologna. They are typically uniform from edge to edge and don't even resemble the animal source.

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). These compounds are known carcinogens and have been associated with cancer of the oral cavity, urinary bladder, esophagus, stomach and brain. Always look at the nutritionals to determine just how much sodium is in the deli meats.

3. The Danger of Cold Cuts: Listeria

Listeriosis is an infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacteriumListeria monocytogenes, with an estimated 2,500 persons in the US becoming seriously ill and 500 of these resulting in death each year. The symptoms include fever, muscle aches, and sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea.

To protect against listeriosis, the USDA advises us 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 Listeria, so wash with hot water and soap anything that comes in contact with the juices.

4. How Much Are You 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.

5. Deli meats are highly perishable

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.

And always look for an expiration date: 

  • "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.

For more on Deli Meats, just visit Dr and