Corned beef is a cut of meat, usually brisket, that is pickled in seasoned salt brine and sliced for sandwiches or served as a main course. The cured meat has a decent amount of calories, total fat and sodium even just by itself.
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Corned beef isn't the most nutritious cut of meat, so it's something you probably want to enjoy once in a while (like on St. Patrick's Day) rather than making it a regular feature on your dinner rotation. Most corned beef is made with a preservative called sodium nitrate. While it appears that small amounts are OK to eat, the jury is still out on what effect larger amounts can have on your health over time.
Find out if corned beef is bad for you and how to include it as part of a balanced diet.
How Is Corned Beef Made?
Surprisingly enough, "corning" is totally unrelated to corn — it's actually a form of curing. Before refrigeration was a thing, meat was dry-cured in large, coarse pellets, or "corns," of salt in order to preserve it, per the USDA. That's how corned beef got its name.
Nowadays, to make corned beef, we use brine of saltwater instead of dry-curing with salt pellets. Corned beef brine also usually includes sugar, peppercorn and bay leaf, among other spices.
Corned Beef Calories and Nutrition
Cooked corned beef consists of beef, water, salt, sugar and sodium nitrate. A 3-ounce serving contains:
- Calories: 213
- Total fat: 12.7 g
- Saturated fat: 5.3 g
- Trans fat: 0 g
- Cholesterol: 73 mg
- Sodium: 764 mg
- Total carbs: 0 g
- Dietary fiber: 0 g
- Sugar: 0 g
- Protein: 23 g
- Selenium: 66% Daily Value (DV)
- Vitamin B12: 58% DV
- Zinc: 28% DV
- Choline: 14% DV
Keep in mind that these nutritionals are for a 3-ounce serving. With larger portions, you could be taking in way more calories, fat and sodium than you intend.
Corned Beef and Cabbage Calories and Nutrition
Many people eat corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day, but this festive meal does not come from Ireland's holiday menu. Corned beef and cabbage began as an Irish-American tradition in the early 1900s, according to the University of Florida Health Communications.
Per the USDA, a serving of about 1 1/2 cups of corned beef and cabbage has:
- Calories: 222
- Total fat: 9 g
- Saturated fat: 4 g
- Trans fat: 0 g
- Cholesterol: 25 mg
- Sodium: 730 mg
- Total carbs: 22 g
- Dietary fiber: 2 g
- Sugar: 5 g
- Protein: 12 g
Cabbage makes for a low-calorie side dish, but some cooking methods and recipes are healthier than others.
Boiling vegetables causes the water-soluble vitamins to leach out into the water, but microwaving or steaming veggies helps to preserve these nutrients, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Butter adds saturated fat to your corned beef and cabbage, so you can substitute it with a heart-healthy fat, such as olive oil.
If you serve cabbage with corned beef, avoid adding extra salt. Instead, flavor your cabbage with your favorite low-sodium seasonings, such as black pepper, garlic and bay leaves.
The Health Benefits of Corned Beef
1. It's an Excellent Source of Selenium
Three ounces of corned beef offers 66 percent of your daily value of selenium, a mineral that's important for thyroid health, reproduction, DNA production and immune function by protecting the body from damage caused by free radicals and from infection, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
2. It's High in Vitamin B12
A 3-ounce serving of corned beef has 58 percent of your daily value of vitamin B12, which keeps your blood and nerve cells healthy, helps make DNA and helps prevent megaloblastic anemia (a blood condition that causes fatigue and weakness), per the NIH.
3. It's Rich in Zinc
A 3-ounce serving of corned beef has 28 percent of your daily value of zinc, a mineral that supports your immunity and helps create cells and proteins, per the NIH. It's also required for making sure your sense of taste and smell are working properly.
4. It's High in Choline
Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that supports memory, mood, muscle control and other brain and nervous system functions, per the NIH. A 3-ounce portion of corned beef supplies 14 percent of your DV for it.
Sodium in Corned Beef
One of the major concerns with corned beef is its sodium content, which is especially important if you have high blood pressure.
Taking in more than 5,000 milligrams per day is linked to an increased risk of heart attack in people who already have high blood pressure, according to a March 2015 report in Circulation Research.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day — or even better, no more than 1,500 milligrams per day, especially for those with high blood pressure.
While an occasional corned beef meal isn't likely to cause a problem — especially if you're following a diet that consists of mostly whole foods — 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.
Sodium Nitrate in Corned Beef
These days, 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.
Eating too much sodium nitrate is linked to an increased risk of developing hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland, by interfering with the way the thyroid absorbs iodine, an essential mineral, per a June 2017 study in the European Food Safety Authority. Sodium nitrate has also been linked to blood vessel damage, which can cause the aterties to harden and narrow — aka atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease and kidney problems, per the Mayo Clinic.
Sodium nitrate may also interfere with the way your body uses sugar, a problem that's linked to an increased risk of diabetes.
Storage and Cooking Tips
If you're buying corned beef, make sure to follow these food-safety storage tips, per the USDA:
- Store uncooked corned beef in its juices for 5 to 7 days in the refrigerator (at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less).
- If you're freezing corned beef, drain the brine and wrap it well — it can last in the freezer for a month.
- Cooked corned beef can be refrigerated for about 3 to 4 days and frozen for about 2 to 3 months.
If you're cooking corned beef, follow these tips:
- Corned beef isn't a very tender cut, so it requires long, moist cooking, such as in a slow cooker or in the oven with an oven bag.
- Cook all raw corned beef to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees F, per the USDA.
- Allow your corned beef brisket to stand for about 20 minutes after removing it from the heat to make it easier to slice. Make sure to slice corned beef diagonally across the grain of the meat.
- Refrigerate leftover corned beef within 2 hours of cooking it.
Here are a few ways to eat corned beef:
- Add it to sandwiches along with sauerkraut and mustard
- Chop it up and add it to an omelet with veggies
- Slice it and place over a fresh salad
- Add it to a whole-grain wrap with spinach and tomato
Is Corned Beef Healthy?
Enjoying corned beef as a holiday meal or occasional treat is OK, but you should keep in mind that it's high in sodium and saturated fat — two nutrients that are bad for the heart — before making this dish a regular part of your menu.
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 doesn't have carbs, but corned beef hash — which also includes potatoes — will have significantly more carbohydrates than corned beef and cabbage, which is a low-carb dish.
The bottom line: Corned beef can be bad for you if you eat it every day or if you prepare it with less-nutritious ingredients.
- 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"
- University of Florida Health Communications: Avoiding the caloric bomb of corned beef and cabbage
- USDA Food Data Central: CORNED BEEF SLOWLY SIMMERED, EXPERTLY SEASONED, THINLY-SLICED CORNED BEEF BRISKET WITH POTATOES & TENDER GREEN CABBAGE DINNER
- Harvard Health Publishing: Microwave cooking may be quick and easy – but are microwaves safe for your food?