Corned beef is the symbol of St. Patrick's Day, but unfortunately, even the luck of the Irish can't make corned beef the healthiest option for you. While each corned beef recipe is different from another, the cured meat packs a decent amount of calories, total fat and sodium even just by itself.
But it's not just that. Most corned beef also contains a preservative called sodium nitrate. While it appears that small amounts are OK for human consumption, the jury is still out on what effect larger amounts can have on your health over time. That doesn't mean you can't occasionally indulge, but corned beef shouldn't be the foundation of your healthy diet.
While corned beef isn't the healthiest option, it's OK for an occasional treat, especially if you're sticking to the proper serving sizes. If you eat too much, the calories, fat, sodium and sodium nitrate you're taking in could be a problem.
Corned Beef Calories and Nutrition
The USDA defines 2 ounces of cooked corned beef —which also contains beef, water, salt, sugar and sodium nitrate — as a serving. When eating that amount of corned beef, calories clock in at 129. You'll also get:
- 12 grams of protein
- 9 grams of total fat
- 4 grams of saturated fat
- 67 milligrams of cholesterol
- 1 gram of carbohydrates
- 549 milligrams of sodium
But keep in mind that this is for a 2-ounce serving. If you're paying attention to your portions sizes and staying within this limit, corned beef isn't necessarily unhealthy, but many people tend to consume more than that. In larger portions, you could be taking in way more calories, fat and sodium than you intend.
Of course, if your corned beef recipe has added ingredients, the nutrition facts will change based on what you're putting in. For example, corned beef hash, which also contains potatoes, will have significantly more carbohydrates than corned beef and cabbage, which is a low-carb dish.
A High-Sodium Food
One of the major concerns with corned beef is its sodium content. While research is emerging that lets sodium off the hook a little bit, you still have to be careful, especially if you have high blood pressure. According to a report that was published in Circulation Research in March 2015, a sodium intake of more than 5,000 milligrams per day can increase the risk of adverse cardiac events, like heart attack, in people who already have high blood pressure.
While another report in Frontiers in Endocrinology that was published in December 2016 brings up the point that current guidelines, which recommend no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, may be a little too strict, it's a good idea to make sure you're not going overboard on the salt.
While an occasional corned beef meal isn't likely to cause a problem, especially if you're following a clean diet that consists of mostly whole foods, your overall intake of sodium is something that you want to pay attention to. If you're eating a lot of processed foods and cured meats, you may be taking in more sodium than you realize. Talk to your doctor to find out the right amount of sodium for you.
Be Wary of Sodium Nitrate
Before refrigeration, people used to preserve the meat used to make corned beef by dry-curing it in pellets of salt that were about the size of a kernel of corn, according to the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. That's how corned beef got its name.
Nowadays, corned beef is made with sodium nitrate — a chemical preservative that's also responsible for its pinkish color. But while the jury is still out on the health effects of sodium nitrate, there's some research that indicates the preservative can have some negative health effects.
Read more: The 10 Worst Foods You Can Buy
According to a study that was published in the journal European Food Safety Authority in June 2017, consuming too much sodium nitrate may increase the risk of developing hypothyroidism, or an underachieve thyroid gland, by interfering with the way the thyroid absorbs iodine, an essential mineral.
Mayo Clinic adds that sodium nitrate might damage your blood vessels, which can cause hardening and narrowing of the arteries — a condition known as atherosclerosis that can lead to heart disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease and kidney problems. Sodium nitrate may also interfere with the way your body utilizes sugar, a problem that can increase your risk of diabetes.
- Mayo Clinic: "Does the Sodium Nitrate in Processed Meat Increase My Risk of Heart Disease?"
- Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences: "Why Is Corned Beef Pink?"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Corned Beef"
- European Food Safety Authority: "Re‐Evaluation of Sodium Nitrate (E 251) and Potassium Nitrate (E 252) as Food Additives"
- Circulation Research: "Sodium Intake and Cardiovascular Health"
- Frontiers in Endocrinology: "Sodium and Its Role in Cardiovascular Disease – The Debate Continues"