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Is Lunch Meat Healthy?

Is Lunch Meat Healthy?
High-protein lunch meat may have hidden dangers. Photo Credit: redstallion/iStock/Getty Images

Lunch meat, also called cold cuts, can be purchased pre-packaged at the supermarket or at a deli counter where it is sliced to order. It makes a convenient sandwich filling or salad topping. But hidden dangers may lurk in some varieties of this convenient food. By knowing what components are healthy and unhealthy, you can make better choices about whether to include lunch meat as part of your healthy diet.

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Protein and Fat

Lunch meat is generally high in protein, but the fat content varies greatly, depending on the brand and style. Bologna, for example, contains 7.9 g of fat per slice, including 3.1 g of saturated fat, but has only 2.8 g of protein. On the other hand, lean turkey breast supplies 6.4 g of protein and but has less than 1 g of fat per slice.

Sodium and Nitrates

The American Heart Association recommends keeping salt intake below about 1,500 mg a day for most people; the high levels of sodium in many lunch meats can quickly push you above this total. For example, a single slice of bologna contains more than 300 mg of sodium. Even low-sodium turkey breast contains about 200 mg of salt per slice. Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate, which is converted to sodium nitrite in the body, are commonly used as preservatives in pre-packaged lunch meats. Both have been linked to cancer and lung disease, although further study is required to confirm this link. These preservatives may also trigger migraines in susceptible individuals. Highly-processed lunch meats, such as bologna, salami and pastrami, tend to be higher in both sodium, nitrites and nitrates than less-processed varieties, such as turkey breast or ham.

Food-borne Illness

Another concern about lunch meat involves the possibility of food-borne illness. Lunch meat can become contaminated with listeria bacteria. While most healthy adults do not get sick from listeria, people with compromised immune systems, the elderly and children may become ill. Pregnant women are also at risk for the disease listeriosis, which can cause miscarriage, preterm labor or a severe infection in the newborn.


In general, consuming the occasional slice of low-fat, low-sodium lunch meat shouldn't harm your health, but eating it frequently may bring about health problems. If you do choose to eat lunch meat, choose a healthier variety such as lean, low-sodium turkey breast instead of salami, bologna or pastrami. Eat only one or two slices at a time, and don't eat it every day. Check the nutritional information on the package to know exactly how much sodium and preservatives are in the product. Be aware of other processed meats -- hot dogs, sausage and pepperoni -- that may also be sources of salt and nitrates, and limit consumption of these as well.

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