It’s tough to find lower-salt lunch meats. A 2 oz. serving of sliced chicken, turkey, ham, beef, or bologna typically has around 500 to 700 milligrams of sodium.
That’s a third of a day’s worth (in just 50 to 100 calories’ worth of food). Salamis can hit 1,000 mg.
And that’s before the 300 to 400 mg of sodium in two slices of whole wheat bread, the 100 mg in every tablespoon of mayo or teaspoon of dijon mustard, or the 150 mg in each slice of cheese. Got your blood pressure cuff handy?
Our recommendations have no more than 360 mg of sodium in a 2 oz. serving.
To find the lowest-salt meats, look for:
“Healthy” in the name. Healthy Ones, Celebrity Healthy, and Market Pantry (Target) Healthy hover around 350 mg of sodium per 2 oz.
“No nitrites added.” “No nitrites or nitrates added” lunch meats from smaller brands—like Applegate, Simply Balanced (Target), and New Hope Provisions and Wellshire (both sold only at Whole Foods)—typically have 250 to 350 mg of sodium. The “uncured” hams from those companies have around 450 mg (Wellshire’s has 350 mg).
“No nitrites added” or “no artificial preservatives” lines from bigger companies—like Hillshire Farm Naturals, Hormel Natural Choice, and Oscar Mayer Selects— will set you back around 450 to 550 mg.
But don’t be fooled by these “no nitrites added” claims.
Many companies cure their turkey, ham, salami and other lunch meats by adding sodium nitrite, a preservative which may raise the risk of colorectal and other cancers. Should you ditch them for lunch meats that say “no nitrites or nitrates added” or “no artificial preservatives,” or that claim to be “natural” or “uncured”? Not necessarily.
Companies that make those claims usually add celery (or some other vegetable) juice or powder that is rich in naturally occurring nitrates, which are converted to nitrites—either in the food or when they react with bacteria in our bodies. (Some companies—like Oscar Mayer—add “cultured” celery juice, in which the nitrates have already been converted to nitrites.)
The take-home message: assume that meats with celery or vegetable juice or powder listed in the ingredients list end up with about as much nitrite as meats with sodium nitrite.
What about the remaining lunch meats that contain neither sodium nitrite nor vegetable juice or powder? They may end up with as much nitrite—from ingredients like sea salt, evaporated cane juice, potato starch, natural flavorings, or seasonings—as meats that are cured with sodium nitrite. Or they may have less. We simply can’t say for sure, and companies wouldn’t tell us.
“Lower sodium.” Lower-sodium brands vary. Columbus Reduced Sodium and Dietz & Watson Gourmet Lite turkey breasts have only 220 mg of sodium, and they’re big on taste. In contrast, Lower Sodium turkey breasts from Hillshire Farm Deli Select have about 420 mg and Sara Lee’s range from 390 to 470 mg. (Sara Lee Lower Sodium Honey Roasted Turkey Breast’s 300 mg of sodium is for a small, two-slice, 1.6 oz. serving. Eat three slices, and you hit 470 mg.)
For the lowest-sodium lunch meats, ask the deli counter to slice up a “no salt added” turkey breast or roast beef from a brand like Boar’s Head. A 2 oz. serving has only around 50 mg of sodium.