Sausage Packs Protein — but You'll Want to Limit It at Barbecues and Breakfast

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Juicy, flavorful sausage is a staple in many households because of its convenience and versatility in countless recipes, cuisines and backyard barbecues. It tends to be a crowd favorite, but sausage is not without its own controversy.

While sausage boasts B vitamins and protein, it's also high in saturated fat and sodium.
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While sausages provide many of the same health benefits as other animal-based products, such as protein and B vitamins, research links eating too much red and processed meats to cancer and chronic diseases including diabetes and heart disease. Experts generally advise limiting your intake of processed meats such as sausage.

However, if you love your links, you can still enjoy them as part of a healthy diet. The type of sausage you choose can make a big difference in its nutritional profile, and this meat can also provide a vehicle for eating more healthy foods like vegetables.

Sausage Nutrition Facts

One serving of meat 3 ounces. However, many processed sausage nutrition labels specify one link as one serving, which is typically less than three ounces.

One link of Italian sausage (2.6 ounces), traditionally made with pork meat, contains:

  • Calories: 258
  • Total fat: 20.5 g
  • Cholesterol: 42.8 mg
  • Sodium: 557.3 mg
  • Total carbs: 3.2 g
  • Dietary fiber: 0.1 g
  • Sugar: 1.4 g
  • Added sugar: 0 g
  • Protein: 14.3 g

Sausage Macros

  • Total fat: One link of Italian sausage has 20.5 grams of total fat, which includes 2.6 grams of polyunsaturated fat, 12.8 grams of monounsaturated fat, 7.6 grams of saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat.
  • Carbohydrates: One link of Italian sausage has 3.2 grams of carbs, which includes 0.1 grams of fiber and 1.4 grams of sugar.
  • Protein: One link of Italian sausage has 14.3 grams of protein.

Vitamins, Minerals and Other Micronutrients

  • Vitamin B12: 41% of your Daily Value (DV)
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamin): 39% DV
  • Selenium: 30% DV
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin): 20% DV
  • Zinc: 16% DV
  • Choline: 11% DV
  • Phosphorus: 10% DV
  • Iron: 6% DV
  • Potassium: 5% DV
  • Vitamin D: 4% DV
  • One link of Italian sausage is not a significant source of calcium (1% DV).

How Do Common Types of Sausage Compare?

Per 3 oz., cooked

Italian Sausage

Beef Sausage

Apple Chicken Sausage

Turkey Sausage

Calories

289

340

170

167

Total Fat

22.9 g

31.6 g

10 g

8.9 g

Saturated Fat

8.6 g

12.7 g

3 g

1.9 g

Sodium

624.1 mg

690.5 mg

580 mg

565.6 mg

Carbohydrates

3.6 g

0 g

5 g

0 g

Protein

16.1 g

13 g

14 g

20.3 g

Source: USDA

Health Benefits of Sausage

Sausage provides valuable nutrients when eaten in moderation. That said, red and processed meats are linked with a higher risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and premature death, so it's important not to make sausage an everyday food.

1. Sausage Is Packed With Protein

Although the amount of protein in sausage varies by type, sausages are generally high in this essential macronutrient. Your body needs protein to make and repair cells, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Protein also helps fight infection, build and contract muscles, keep body fluids balanced, clot blood and carry fats, vitamins, minerals and oxygen throughout the body.

"It's best to have protein throughout the day for protein synthesis," says Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, a clinical professor at Boston University. "Having a protein source for breakfast, like turkey sausage with vegetables, may also help you feel more full in the morning."

Turkey sausage is higher in protein and lower in saturated fat than Italian sausage, beef sausage and apple chicken sausage. Your protein needs will vary based on your activity level, age and sex, but the daily recommended intake for healthy adults is about 10 to 35 percent of total calories. One gram of protein is equal to 4 calories.

As you're choosing high-protein foods like sausage, it's important to check the saturated fat content on the nutrition label — and limit it when possible. Saturated fat can raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke and lead to weight gain, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

2. Sausage Provides B Vitamins

One link of Italian sausage is rich in vitamins B12, B1 (thiamine) and B3 (niacin). In general, B vitamins help your body create energy from the food you eat and help form red blood cells, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

One link of Italian sausage provides 41 percent of the DV of vitamin B12. Lack of vitamin B12 can result in megaloblastic anemia, a type of anemia that causes symptoms such as fatigue and weakness.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is also associated with low cognitive function and dementia, according to the Mayo Clinic. But, note that more research is needed to determine if B12 supplements can help prevent or treat dementia.

"Vitamin B12 is very important for nerve function, and it only comes naturally in animal products," Blake says. It's generally not found in plant foods, but some non-animal products such as breakfast cereals and bread are fortified with it, per the National Institutes of Health.

3. Sausage Can Be a Vehicle for Healthy Foods

If you love the flavor of sausage, it may be an easy way to increase your consumption of fiber-rich produce.

Although most people don't eat enough fruits and vegetables, research suggests produce is linked to a lower risk of several chronic diseases and may even lower your risk of certain types of cancer, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Use sausage as an accessory to a vegetable-rich meal. For instance, cut up half a sausage link and add slices to a skewer with grilled vegetables, or sauté them with a mix of vegetables like onion, garlic, peppers, broccoli and tomatoes.

"You'll get the sausage flavor to whet your appetite, but it'll be surrounded by healthy produce that's the main event," Blake says. "You may find you don't have to season it with salt because the sausage will bring out the flavor in the vegetables."

Modest amounts of sausage can give you the flavor you crave, while also encouraging you to eat the healthy foods your body needs.

Summary

Sausage is a source of B vitamins and protein but you can get these nutrients from healthier, lean animal proteins. If you're eating sausage, try to opt for ones made with chicken or turkey instead of beef and pork and choose the brand with the lowest amount of sodium.

Sausage Health Risks

1. Cancer Risk

Processed meat is any meat that has been treated for preservation or flavor, including processes such as salting, curing, smoking and fermenting, per the American Cancer Society.

Sausage is a type of processed meat, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) classifies as a carcinogen, something that causes cancer. What's more, the agency considers unprocessed red meat a probable carcinogen, something that probably causes cancer.

People who ate 76 grams (about the size of one sausage link) of red and processed meat every day were observed to have a 20-percent higher risk of colorectal cancer than those who ate just 21 grams of meat in an April 2019 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. For every daily 25-gram serving of processed meat, equal to about a slice of bacon or ham, the risk of colorectal cancer rose by 19 percent.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends eating little, if any, processed meat for cancer prevention.

2. Excess Saturated Fat

Sausage tends to be high in saturated fat that raises LDL (bad) cholesterol, with beef sausage typically containing the most and chicken or turkey sausage containing the least.

Three ounces of beef sausage has 12.7 grams of saturated fat, or 63 percent of your DV. The same serving of turkey sausage, on the other hand, contains 1.9 grams of saturated fat — or 10 percent of your DV.

Related Reading

"If a food contains more than 20 percent of your daily value of saturated fat per serving, it is considered to be high in it," Blake says. "If you eat more saturated fat with food like sausage, think about how you can balance it out over the course of a day or week by consuming less saturated fat at other meals."

3. Excess Sodium

It's easy to load up on sodium when eating processed foods like sausage. Most Americans already eat too much sodium, which can raise blood pressure — a major risk for heart disease and stroke, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Plus, the more salt you eat, the more calcium your body loses through urination. This means if you have a short supply of calcium in your blood, it can leach out of your bones. A high-sodium diet could, in turn, contribute to bone-weakening osteoporosis, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The AICR concluded that foods preserved by salting are a "probable cause of stomach cancer." Particularly when accompanied by H. pylori bacteria, salt-preserved foods like meat and fish irritate the stomach lining over time in a way that makes the cancer process more probable.

Three ounces of Italian sausage contains 624.1 milligrams of sodium, or 26 percent of your DV. It's important to read the nutrition facts label to determine how much sodium you're taking in. While sodium is typically associated with the salt shaker, more than 70 percent of sodium Americans eat comes from processed and restaurant foods, per the CDC.

Are You Taking in Too Much Salt?

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4. Calorie Intake

Moderation is key for weight management or weight loss, and this is particularly true of high-fat foods like sausage. Fat contains more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein, and eating too much sausage can lead to weight gain.

Three ounces of Italian sausage contains 22.9 grams of total fat, which equates to 206 calories. That's 71 percent of the calories in that serving of sausage.

5. Nitrates and Nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are chemical compounds often added as preservatives to processed meat like sausage. In your body, these can transform into compounds that may play a role in cancer risk — but more research is needed to confirm this link.

You may see "no nitrates added" processed meats at the store, which typically only means they're preserved with celery juice (celery is rich in naturally occurring nitrate), per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

What's more, these meats can still contain other carcinogenic compounds such as PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which are formed during the smoking process, as well as heme iron, which can support the formation of carcinogenic compounds in the body.

Until more is known about the relationship between processed meat and cancer, it's best to think of "nitrate-free" processed meats like other processed meats and limit intake, per the university.

6. Drug Interactions

Foods that are aged or smoked like salami and dry sausage contain tyramine, an amino acid that could cause a blood pressure spike when taken with linezolid (Zyvox), used to treat bacterial infections, according to Consumer Reports.

Be sure to discuss any medication and food interactions with your health care professional.

7. Allergies

Although uncommon, more cases of meat allergy have been reported in the past few years. Meat from any mammal (beef, lamb, pork and so forth) and even poultry like chicken or turkey can cause an allergic reaction.

A meat allergy may develop at any time in life, and is sometimes caused by a bite from the Lone Star tick, found predominantly in the Southeastern states, per the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

See an allergist if you suspect you have a meat allergy. Food allergies can cause severe and life-threatening symptoms, and you may need to avoid meat and carry epinephrine with you.

Try to limit how often you fry sausages to go along with your breakfast and opt for plant-based options whenever possible.
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Sausage Brands We Like

  • Diestel Italian Turkey Sausage ($11.95, Diestel Turkey)
  • Applegate Naturals Classic Pork Breakfast Sausage ($5.19, Instacart)
  • Whole Foods Market Organic Apple Chicken Sausage ($6.99, Amazon)

Sausage Preparation and Useful Tips

You can purchase sausages either raw or ready-to-eat. If you are handling raw or partially cooked meat, it's important to cook them to a safe temperature to prevent foodborne illness. Follow these tips to safely prepare and store sausages.

Cook fresh sausage thoroughly. Fresh sausages, including pork, beef, breakfast and Italian sausages, must be cooked thoroughly before eating. Other types of sausage, such as salami, bratwurst and some hot dogs are often pre-cooked (but always check the package; some meats are only "partially cooked" when you buy them).

If you're preparing a sausage from its raw state, be sure to check its temperature with a meat thermometer before slicing or eating.

Uncooked sausages made with ground beef, pork, lamb or veal should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Those made with ground turkey and chicken should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, per the USDA.

Freeze sausage you don't plan to eat right away. Uncooked fresh sausage only lasts one to two days in the refrigerator (unopened or opened), or one to two months in the freezer, per the USDA. Cooked fresh sausage can last three to four days in the refrigerator, or two to three months in the freezer.

Whole, unopened dry sausage like pepperoni can stay fresh for six weeks in the pantry and indefinitely in the refrigerator. Once it's been opened, store for up to three weeks in the refrigerator or one to two months in the freezer.

Sausage Recipes

Alternatives to Sausage

To add protein-packed flavor to your meals, you can swap sausage for lean cuts of meat — these usually have the words "round," "loin" or "sirloin" on the package.

It's best to minimize the amount of processed red meat you eat, and instead opt for skinless poultry, non-fried fish or beans when possible, per the American Heart Association.

A 3-ounce cooked portion of meat is about the size of a deck of cards, and equals about ½ of a chicken breast, ¾ cup of flaked fish or two thin slices of lean roast beef. Trim as much fat as possible before cooking, and pour off any melted fat afterward. Healthy cooking methods for meat include baking, broiling, stewing and roasting.

You can also opt for plant-based sausage, including:

  • Tofurky Original Italian Sausage ($3.96, Walmart)
  • Morningstar Farms Veggie Breakfast Sausage Links ($4.49, Instacart)
  • Beyond Meat Beyond Sausage ($7.99, Kroger)
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