Molly Watson

Lunch Meat: Know Your Label Lingo

deli meat


Back-to-school season is in full swing, and that means filling those lunchboxes. Packing healthy lunches (that don’t secretly end up in the trash) can be a challenge, so as you head to the deli aisle and consider the options for sandwich fillings this fall, keep these label terms in mind.



“Light” / “Lite”

Processed or deli meats labelled “light” or “lite” must contain at least a third fewer calories (or 50 percent less fat) than the regular version of that meat. Labels often list specifics (how much lower in calories or fat than the regular version) in fine-print on the label. If you’re concerned about your caloric or fat intake, however, be sure to check the total amount. Just because there’s, say, half the fat, it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s not still a significant amount in there.


The American Heart Association recommends limiting your total daily fat intake to no more than 56 to 78 grams a day, with no more than 16 grams of that being saturated fat, which tends to be high in many deli meats. Those guidelines are for adults averaging a 2,000 calorie per day diet; for kids, the recommended limit is proportional.



“99% Fat Free”

The number on the label may be “99%,” or it may be less (e.g., 97 percent). What’s important is the difference between that number and 100, because that’s how much fat is in there. (Thus, “97% fat free” means the meat is 3 percent fat). Some consumer advocates want any claims under “97% fat-free” to be illegal, since something that is 4 percent fat or greater isn’t a low-fat product, and the use of “fat-free” on the label implies that it is. As always, read the nutrition label for full details so you know how much fat is in the product and whether that’s a good choice for you and your family.



“Extra Lean”

As with the “fat-free” and “light” labels, the claims of “extra lean” are only in comparison to other products. Read the nutrition label for the actual fat content.



“Reduced Sodium”

Deli meats are notoriously high in salt, which both adds flavor and acts as a preservative. The questions the savvy consumer needs to ask are “how much lower?” and “lower than what?” Anything labeled “reduced” or “less” sodium needs to be at least 25% less than the standard version of that meat. Labels reading “low sodium” (less than 140 milligrams of sodium per servings), “very low sodium” (less than 35 milligrams), and “sodium free” (less than 5 milligrams) rarely apply to deli meats. Check the nutrition label for the exact amount of sodium per serving if sodium intake is a concern for you.



“Nitrate-Free” / “Nitrite-Free”

Nitrates are used to help preserve deli meats, especially salami and other cured meats. Traditionally, the nitrate in salt used to cure meats helps maintain the pink color and enhances flavor. During the curing process, the nitrate transforms into nitrite. Many processed meats are now made with the addition of synthetic nitrates; organic products use natural nitrates (usually from a combination of celery and salt). In short, all cured meats, such as salami, contain some amount of nitrites when all is said and done.


Many people choose to avoid nitrates/nitrites because our digestive systems can convert them into nitrosamines, which have been linked to colon and gastric cancers. Sliced deli meats, such as ham, roast beef or turkey, shouldn’t have had nitrates added in the first place. This is a case where reading the list of ingredients should give you the information that you need.



“American Heart Association”

Foods labeled with the American Heart Association logo are low in total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. They are also high in calcium, iron, fiber, protein, or vitamins A and C (for deli meats, this means high in protein!).



“Oven Roasted”

You see the phrase “oven roasted” on lots of deli meat packages. It brings to mind the image of a Thanksgiving turkey or Easter ham being lovingly removed from the oven by a grandmother and brought with pride to the table, doesn’t it? As you might imagine, that isn’t the case with deli meats. Oven roasted they may be, but in large industrial ovens and in big batches. While roasting is generally a healthier way to cook meats than frying, deli meats are traditionally roasted, steamed, baked or poached — not fried. The “roasted” description is usually used to call attention to turkey or chicken that is roasted instead of poached or steam-cooked, resulting in what most agree is better flavor.



“HHP” / “High-Pressure Processing”

While this may not be listed on deli-meat labels, it is a relatively new way of preserving deli meats without nitrates or other preservatives. The meat is packaged and then put under such pressure (equivalent to deeper than the ocean floor) that any pathogens burst and die. Think of it as vacuum sealing times ten.




Shop smarter! Check out all our “Know Your Label Lingo” articles!



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