Eating fresh from the deli? Think again!

If you are like the rest of the thousands of people who grab lunch or dinner every day from the local deli, you probably think you’re eating fresh healthy food. But are you?

In my daily practice of medicine, it became apparent to me that individuals who grabbed a deli sandwich every day or who consumed a lot of processed meats, seemed generally less healthy and were more likely to suffer from other health ailments such as high blood pressure, low thyroid, obesity, type 2 diabetes and even cancer. Those were my observations and what led me to dig deeper and look for evidence to support my suspicion that processed meats were not healthy.

What I found meant that just because the deli says its “fresh” and that the meat is sliced in front of you to be immediate put onto your sandwich, doesn’t mean it’s fresh. Truly fresh meat is any fish, chicken, beef or pork or wild game that has not been processed/cured in any way. These are meats that will go bad in the refrigerator in 1 to 2 weeks if not cooked eaten or frozen within that time period.

So let’s take a closer look at those deli meats we so often associate with being fresh.

To keep our favorite ham, roast turkey or roast beef “fresh” in the deli until we want them, the manufacturers process the meats and add a preservative called Sodium Nitrite (see post “hot dog”) Sodium nitrite is not a naturally occurring substance. It is a chemical preservative added to most deli meat that will add many months to its shelf life. Unfortunately, these meats that are processed with sodium nitrite are often called “cured meats”. The word “cured” gives it a nice healthy ring and can fool us into thinking that eating “cured meats” is okay. But it’s not! Especially when cured means it contains Sodium Nitrite!

There is now scientific evidence supporting the ills of processed meats. In the past many studies performed here in the USA lumped processed meats and red meat into one category. This skewed test results and gave us the impression that all red meat was bad for us and it encouraged us to avoid it. We began to avoid the roast beef deli sandwiches and gravitate toward the deli chicken or turkey sandwiches, thinking that we were eating healthy. Unfortunately those studies had prevented a pure look at processed meats. Recently an extensive study was conducted in Europe and was published March, 2013 in BMC Medicine. “The aim of the study was to examine the association of red meat, processed meat, and poultry consumption with the risk of early death.” It showed that there was a difference between eating processed meats and fresh meats. The results of the study, as indicated below, concluded that there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and early death with the consumption of processed meats.

The details of the study:

The study included 448,568 men and women in 10 European countries over an average 12.7 year follow-up period and looked at the deaths from all causes. “During the follow-up period, 26,344 study participants (11,563 men and 14,781 women) died. Of these, 5,556 died of cardiovascular diseases, 9,861 of cancer, 1,068 of respiratory diseases, 715 of digestive tract diseases, and 9,144 of other causes (including 976 who died from external causes).” The study concluded that 3.3% of deaths from all causes could have been prevented by not consuming processed meats.

Bottom Line:

Processed meats are unhealthy and can lead to a higher death rate. Throughout our existence our bodies have developed the ability to digest food and use it to produce energy that allows us to grow and be active. Food and water are essential to survive and thrive. But more recently (in the last 100 years) many chemicals have been produced and added to our food. Our bodies do not have an easy way to process the chemicals into energy for us to use. Sodium nitrite is unnatural and the evidence shows that it is unhealthy as well. There is strong evidence that processed meats are a cause of bowel cancer and The World Cancer Research Fund says no amount of processed meat consumption is considered safe. It behooves us all to avoid all processed meats and eat truly fresh food.


There’s nothing fresh in the Deli! The next time you are the deli ask to read the label of your favorite deli meat, chances are it contains sodium nitrite.

Helpful hints to eating a healthy diet:

  • Avoid all processed meats, it really is not that difficult.
  • Try to keep several meals a week red meat-free. Make every other evening meal meat-free. Try replacing meat with lentils or beans instead. They are good sources of protein.
  • Grilled fish and poultry make tasty alternatives to red meat. (See my post: Good Fish Bad Fish for healthy fish choices)
  • Choose vegetables and whole grains first. If you eat meat, stick with smaller portions.
  • Try canned fish including sardines, salmon, and mackerel. These are all great in sandwiches or pasta dishes.
  • Add beans such as kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils. They are tasty in dishes such as chili, soups and salads. They can even be made into burgers.
  • Don’t forget eggs, cottage cheese and humus. These are all good sources of protein too.
  • Swap processed meats for healthier alternatives. Instead of bacon or salami try spicy chicken, turkey or vegetarian sausages.

Happy healthy eating!

Brian Goertz MD supporting your health and food honesty!