9 Ways to Pick the Best Healthy Lunch Meats

healthy lunch meat

Talk about confusing. “Natural” or “no nitrites added” healthy lunch meats could deliver as much nitrite as a lunch meat that lists sodium nitrite in the ingredients list. And a “lower sodium” lunch meat could have more salt than a lunch meat that makes no sodium claims.

Labels will say whatever it takes to get your attention. Forget their malarkey. Here are nine ways to choose the best healthy lunch meats before you break out the mustard.


1. Know your serving.

Be careful when reading the Nutrition Facts label, as some lunch meats use a small 1 oz. serving size instead of the standard 2 oz. serving size. The smaller serving size may make the lunch meat appear to be lower in calories and salt, but ounce for ounce it may have just as much (or more) as other lunch meats. Bottom line: before you compare lunch meats, make sure you’re looking at the same serving size. That low salt, low calorie, healthy lunch meat may not be as healthy as it seems.

2. Put a lid on sodium.

It’s tough to find lower-salt lunch meats. A 2oz. serving of sliced chicken, turkey, ham, beef, or bologna typically has around 500 to 700 milligrams (mg) 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 mg 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?

To find a lower-sodium lunch meat, look for labels that say “healthy,” “no nitrites added,” or “lower sodium.” Most brands making these claims had less than 500 mg  sodium per 2 oz. serving, with some as low as 250 mg. But for the lowest sodium healthy lunch meats, ask the deli counter to slice up a “no salt added” turkey breast or roast beef.

3. Don’t be fooled by “no nitrites added.”

Many companies cure their cold cuts by adding sodium nitrite, which may raise the risk of colorectal and other cancers, in part by forming cancer-causing N-nitroso compounds in the gut.

Should you ditch them for healthy lunch meats that have “no nitrites or nitrates added” or “no artificial preservatives,” or that are “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.

4. Skip smoked meats.

Compounds called PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which form in smoked meat, may raise the risk of cancer. So if you like smoke, look for healthy lunch meats with added smoke flavor, which should have much lower levels of PAHs than smoked lunch meats. You’ll find it listed among the ingredients.

5. Don’t forget protein.

People who are middle-aged or older need to get enough protein to avoid losing muscle. A 2 oz. serving of turkey or chicken breast, ham, or roast beef typically has 10 to 12 grams.

But most bolognas and loafs have just 6 or 7 grams of protein—less than what’s in the two slices of whole wheat bread you’d slap the meat on. Look for a lunch meat with at least 8 grams of protein in a 2 oz. serving.

6. Minimize saturated fat.

Look for lunch meats with no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per 2 oz. serving. That’s not hard to find in healthy lunch meats like turkey, chicken, ham, roast beef, corned beef, or pastrami. But it’s rare in a bologna or salami, which can hit around 6 or 7 grams of saturated fat per serving. Despite what you may have heard, too much saturated fat in the diet raises your risk of heart disease.

7. Avoid sugar if you want.

Lunch meats have no naturally occurring sugar, and many have no added sugar either. But some “honey,” “maple,” or “brown sugar” varieties have as much as four grams—about a teaspoon. (It could appear in the ingredients list as evaporated cane syrup, fruit juice concentrate, dextrose, or some other name that may not sound like sugar.) If you want to avoid all sugar, look for “0 grams” in the “Sugars” line on the Nutrition Facts label.

8. You can trust “gluten-free” claims.

Need to avoid gluten? No problem. We found dozens of “gluten-free” lunch meats. “Gluten-free” means they have less than 20 parts per million of gluten, according to the US Department of Agriculture (which regulates meats).

Isn’t all meat gluten-free? It should be. But even the most healthy lunch meats can pick up trace amounts from other foods that are being made in the same plant or from ingredients from outside suppliers.

9. Try meatless.

With veggie “meats,” you don’t have to worry about nitrites. And the sodium is typically 300 mg to 400 mg per serving. What’s more, these healthy “meats” have at least as much protein as meat (13 to 16 grams in 2 oz.), thanks to their wheat gluten and/or soy protein.

The problem: many people find veggie meats chewy or odd-tasting. Stick to zingier “peppered” varieties and layer them with crispy vegetables like cucumber, lettuce, and radishes, with a swipe of mayo or mustard.

Source: The information for this article was compiled by Paige Einstein.

NutritionAction.com doesn’t accept any paid advertising or corporate or government funding. Any products recommended by NutritionAction.com have been vetted by our staff of nutritionists and are not advertisements by the manufacturers.


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