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Sandwiches are a tasty lunch option that’s easy to serve at parties and other large gatherings and convenient for brown baggers to carry on the go.

Deli meat is versatile, delicious, and easy to use because it is cooked and seasoned, ready-to-eat. Deli meat is sold by weight in the deli section of your grocery store, or pre-sliced and sold packaged in the meat section of the store, next to bacon, hotdogs, and ham.

Once you’ve opened a package of deli meat, or if you’ve purchased it sliced from the deli counter, it’s best to use it within three to five days. Packaged lunch meats come with a best before date. It’s best to consume the meat on or before this date or freeze it in its unopened package. If the package has already been opened, use a Ziplock, plastic wrap and/or tin foil to avoid freezer burn.

Types of Deli Meat

Deli meat is a broad term for pork, beef, poultry, and blends of the three, sometimes prepared in numerous ways. The name alone has variations, often referred to as lunch meat, cold cuts, sliced meat, sandwich meat, and luncheon meat. To better understand lunch meats’ shelf life and best storage practices, let’s first discuss the different types of deli meats and how they’re made.

How is Deli Meat Made?

Not all deli meats are created equal, and it starts with the cut of meat and ends with what’s added to the brine. A deli roast can be made with chunks of whole muscle meat that are bound together through a brining and tumbling process, (think Roast Turkey Breast).

Or a deli product can be created with mechanically deboned meat cuts that are ground into a slurry, (think bologna) then formed and sliced into luncheon meat. The same goes for sausages. A quality smokie or sausage has chunks of real meat versus a hotdog which is more homogeneous in texture.

What most deli products have in common is the brining process. In conventional deli meats the brine includes a combination of salt, water, sugars (dextrose, corn syrup solids), spices, herbs and preservatives like sodium nitrite, celery extracts, and potassium phosphate.

Traditional Salami, typically made from pork, is a sausage that is cured with nitrites, fermented, and air-dried making it shelf -stable. Historically, salami was popular among Southern, Eastern, and Central European peasants because it could be stored at room temperature for up to 40 days, due to the combination of lower water activity, fermentation and preservatives.

Nitrites help preserve the meat and give them a nice pink colour and distinctive salty flavour. Phosphates help retain moisture and bind the meat cuts together to form a perfectly congealed roast which holds together when sliced. Imagine trying to slice a left-over Turkey breast from your thanksgiving dinner. It would be dry, flaky, and likely fall apart. It’s the processing method, brine (preservatives and additives) that make a typical deli roast moist, flavourful, pink, and easy to slice.

In organic lunch meats the brine is mostly sea salt, water, herbs and spices but in some cases, especially bacon, celery extracts are added. Natural starches like potato are used to replace phosphates and the deli roast or sausage is made with lean whole muscle cuts that are organic.

What’s in Deli Meat?

Roasts sliced at the deli counter tend to be slightly less processed than packaged meats, but often contain the same preservatives and additives. Don’t be fooled by the word “natural”, which literally means nothing. It’s an unregulated marketing term. If you want to know what’s in your lunch meat, it’s a good idea to ask for a list of ingredients at the deli counter.

To give you a better idea of what you’re putting into your body when you consume conventional processed lunch meats, here’s a list of some of the ingredients you may find on the packaging.

  • Sodium Nitrite or Celery Extracts

    This compound helps prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum (the cause of botulism in humans) and can maintain the coloring of cured meat and poultry products. Sodium nitrite, and celery extracts, when combined with amines, which are present in meat, can form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.

    Carcinogens have been linked to cancer of the oral cavity, bladder, esophagus, stomach, and brain.  In fact, most “natural” deli brands use celery extracts, especially with pork products. Celery extracts are biochemically identical to sodium nitrite and they are not healthier. They technically should not be permitted in organic meat, but because the nitrites are derived from celery, not a chemical, they are currently allowed.

    MCLEAN does not use nitrites or celery extracts in any of our products. All MCLEAN products are truly preservative free. So, if you want to avoid nitrites when purchasing deli meat, choose our products or read labels carefully.

  • BHT, BHA, & Tocopherols

    These antioxidants help preserve foods by slowing down rancidity and protecting natural nutrients like vitamin A. Overall, they help maintain the nutritional qualities of your food, but they are controversial regarding health, and probably should be avoided.

  • Phosphates

    Phosphates help protect the flavor and retain moisture in meat and poultry products and help break down muscle fibre to bind meat together. You will notice sodium phosphate listed in the ingredients next to sodium nitrite in most conventional deli meats like ham and bacon.

  • Sodium Erythorbate

    In sausage, ham, bacon and other cured meat products, sodium erythorbate serves as a cure accelerator enhancing the classic pink colour of processed meats when added together with curing salt (nitrites/nitrates). It and other additives have been used to extend color stability and shelf life.

  • Emulsifier

    Additives such as lecithin and mono- and diglycerides are types of emulsifiers. They are usually found in meat spreads to help prevent the separation of the ingredients and maintain the texture. The emulsifiers prevent the separation of water and oil/fat.

  • Gelatin

    Gelatin comes from the skin, tendons, ligaments, or bones of livestock to be used as another thickener in our foods. You can find it in canned hams or jellied meats.

  • Corn Syrup

    This sugar is derived from the chemical breakdown of corn starch and is used to enhance flavor and add sweetness to meat and poultry products. It also helps prevent the crystallization of sugar and alters the volume and texture of certain foods.

  • Citric Acid

    This additive helps protect the fresh color of cut meat in storage. And it maintains the flavor and boosts the effectiveness of antioxidants.

  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

    The purpose of MSG is to enhance your food’s flavor. It’s derived from L-glutamic acid, a common amino acid naturally found in some foods.

How to Store Deli Meat

Except for dried cured shelf-stable meats like salami, jerky and some pepperoni, the way you store them is the same across the board. It doesn’t matter the type of meat or whether it was prepackaged or sliced at the deli. It’s best to keep your deli meat well-wrapped, preferably in a resealable bag, and stored in the bottom of the fridge to avoid cross-contamination from drips or contact with other foods.

Once opened, all meats including salami should be properly sealed, when refrigerated. Here’s a quick rule: if the meat was purchased refrigerated, then keep it refrigerated. If the meat was purchased as shelf stable, not in the fridge, then it does not need to be refrigerated, but pay attention to the expiry date which will be listed on the package.

How Long Does Deli Meat Stay Fresh?

Whether you buy conventional, or “natural” sliced lunch meat from the deli counter, it’s best to consume it within 3-5 days. Packaged meat that has not been opened will have a best before date on the package. This date range will vary between brands and types of processed meat and will depend on how the meat is preserved and processed.

Make a note of this date and aim to consume the product before or by this date. There are some exceptions like cured salami purchased as a chub versus sliced. The dryer the meat, and how it’s preserved and packaged, (sliced vs. chub), determines the shelf life.

Most dried salami, pepperoni and jerky are shelf-stable due to being cured with nitrites and being less moist. However, if you bought them cold, keep them cold.

Can You Freeze Deli Meat?

Sometimes you get a good deal on deli meats and may decide to stock up. But if you can’t eat it all by the expiry date, what can you do to avoid spoilage? Storing them in the freezer may be your best solution.

For unopened prepackaged meats, you can freeze in the original packaging, or put in a freezer bag for extra protection against freezer burn. If you’ve already opened the package, you can transfer the leftover meat to a freezer bag. And if you want to make it easier to access a few slices at a time, you can separate your sliced meats into individual bags and place all the bags in an airtight container.

It’s best to wrap deli meats tightly to prevent freezer burn. Less oxygen, less freezer burn. Freezer bags work well, but you can also use plastic wrap or heavy-duty aluminum. And if you choose plastic wrap, make sure to double wrap your lunch meats.

Deli meats like salami with more fat and less water content freeze better than typical sandwich meat that has more moisture. However, they will be better off in the freezer than in the fridge, growing mold past its sell-by date. Ideally, you want to avoid any food going bad in the fridge to avoid bacterial growth, cross contamination and prevent food poisoning.

Lunch meats typically last up to six months in the freezer. When you’re ready to use your deli meat, it’s best to defrost it in the fridge.

How Do You Know When Deli Meat Goes Bad?

You can identify when your deli meat has started to spoil in a few ways. The first way is a “sniff” test. If your cold cuts have a sour or stale odor, it’s time to discard them.

Some longer-lasting meats, like salami or pepperoni, may not produce a smell immediately. So, another tactic you can use is to check if there’s any moisture or slimy texture on the surface. That usually indicates the growth of bacteria or yeast forming on the cold cut.

You can also observe the color. Any discoloration from the original, usually around the edges of sliced meat, means the meat has spoiled. And if you notice mold spots, the deli meat is past its prime and should be tossed out.

What Are the Dangers of Deli Meat?

As deli meat begins to spoil, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. Therefore, you may experience a severe case of food poisoning if you or your child happen to eat expired deli meat.

Symptoms that may occur include nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and a fever. Generally, these signs of food poisoning are your body’s way of trying to purge itself of the “bad” food. Once your digestive system is cleared of that spoiled meat, you should begin to feel relief in a few days.

Besides food poisoning, there’s also the danger of contracting the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes from eating contaminated deli meats. While listeria can be killed by cooking or pasteurization, you can still get sick from the juices of processed meats. Therefore, make sure to sanitize anything that comes in contact with that liquid.

How to Select Healthier Deli Meats

If you want to eat healthier, deli meats may not seem beneficial, with the number of additives, including nitrites and nitrates, but you can still enjoy the occasional ham or roasted turkey sandwich if you take advantage of more healthy options.

Some grocery delis offer freshly cooked sliced meats made from whole cuts like roast beef or turkey breast. The fewer preservatives there are, the better it will be for your health. You can avoid ingesting growth hormones and antibiotics by choosing organic deli meat.

And some companies no longer use nitrites (mostly in poultry products) and use healthier preservatives like vinegar or ascorbic acid.

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