When you hit the market for some sliced meat, there’s a mind-boggling variety—fat-free, low-sodium, organic, nitrate-free—not to mention all the types of ham, roast beef, chicken, turkey and more. So how do you pick the best option? And is the best option even healthy?

According to Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, author of Younger Next Week: Your Ultimate Rx, it’s wise to limit your intake of deli meats of all kinds (especially to reduce cancer risk and to keep sodium intake in check). “[But] when you do have them, choose the leanest, lowest-sodium options and have small portions,” she suggests, “and choose organic when possible to avoid antibiotics and pesticides.” With that said, here’s how to navigate the wide range of deli choices and confusing labels.

Counter vs. Shelves

“From a nutritional standpoint, fresh tends to be better than processed,” says Zied. So sidle up to your grocery deli counter or a neighborhood butcher if you’re planning to eat your meat soon (sliced deli meat doesn’t last as long as packaged—just three to five days in the fridge since it’s already “open”). Find a place you trust and “make sure you see how they handle the product to avoid cross-contaminating raw meat and cooked, ready-to-eat deli meat,” says Zied. “Also, are they wearing gloves? Let’s hope so!”

Another bonus of choosing counter deli meat is that you can see slices coming right off the slab, as opposed to wondering if your packaged meat was manipulated and formed from various parts of the animal. Yes—that’s a process called sausage manufacturing, and it’s not just for sausage, bologna and salami.

There are actually three categories of deli meat and poultry products: whole cuts (a section of meat that has been cooked, seasoned and sliced, like at a butcher), sectioned and formed (multiple parts of meat that have been prepared from separate pieces and bonded together to form a single slice), and processed (meat that is finely chopped, divided and formed into a round shape, like sausages). To know what you’re getting, it’s good to read the fine print.

Reading the Labels

When you do buy packaged deli meat, it’s all about making smart choices, especially since those labels get confusing. “The main thing is the ingredients lists,” says Zied. “The fewer ingredients, the better—such as turkey breast, water and little else.” She notes that the Applegate brand, for example, contains organic turkey breast, water and less than two percent of salt and carrageenan (an additive extracted from seaweed). “Also, try to choose deli meats with no added sugars.”

On top of “no added sugars,” here are other terms you should familiarize yourself with.


“Lots of people want to limit or avoid pesticides in their food,” says Zied. “The designation ‘organic’ means the food has been prepared without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers, and has not been genetically modified or radiated.” Products labeled “made with organic ingredients” contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

No antibiotics

Meat and poultry products have this label if the producer provides sufficient documentation to the FDA that shows the animals were raised without antibiotics—which is an important piece of information. Who wants medicated meat? Note that a “USDA certified organic meat” label also means that there are no antibiotics or hormones present.

No hormones

It’s against federal regulations to use hormones in raising hogs or poultry, so this designation is superfluous on those meats. Beef, however, is a different situation, so a “no hormones” label on beef means that the FDA has documentation from the producer demonstrating that no hormones have been used to raise the animals. Again, the “USDA certified organic meat” label also conveys this info.

Low/reduced sodium

“Low sodium means the product contains 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving,” says Zied, who adds that the “reduced” designation indicates that a product has 25 percent less sodium than the original version. “Because so many people tend to overdo their daily sodium intake, less is better,” she explains. These options are especially wise for those with blood pressure issues or heart or kidney problems.

Extra lean or 95 percent fat-free

“Extra lean” means fewer than five grams of fat, two grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams, Zied explains. Meanwhile, “percent fat free” is a claim made on a “low-fat” or “fat-free” product that reflects the amount of fat present in 100 grams of food—so “95 percent fat free” signifies a food with five grams of fat per 100 grams, basically the same as “extra lean.” Zied notes, however, that for a small portion (one to two ounces) of ham or turkey, both of which can be relatively lean, you don’t necessarily have to go for “extra lean” versions. If you’re looking to save on fat and calories, an “extra lean” label is more important for larger portions (more than three to four ounces), she says.

No nitrates added

“Nitrates are naturally occurring in water and food, and they’re also added to processed meats to preserve color and give them a longer shelf life,” explains Zied. Any processed meats—meaning they’ve been smoked, cured, salted or had chemical preservatives added—will contain sodium nitrates. While there’s no research showing specifically that nitrates in food are not safe (and the FDA regulates nitrates to ensure they’re present only in safe amounts), there are studies linking certain levels of processed meat intake to various types of cancer.

Nitrate-free products are now available at delis and in store aisles as an option, but the American Institute for Cancer Research has reported that we need more studies to compare them with nitrate-containing versions—there’s no evidence so far that they are a healthier choice.

Now that you’re armed with this knowledge of deli terminology, will it change how you shop?



  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  2. American Institute for Cancer Research