A package of deli meat
Photo: Sam Kaplan

Uncured

These meats are almost always cured, but the curing agents are nitrates or nitrites derived from natural sources such as celery, not synthetic ones, such as sodium nitrite.

Organic

The meat must come from animals given organic feed and raised without antibiotics or added hormones. They may contain natural curing agents but not synthetic ones, such as sodium nitrite. Caramel colorings that contain 4-MEI can’t be used.

Reduced Sodium or Lower in Sodium

These terms don’t mean low sodium—which is defined as 140 mg or less per serving. Rather, they mean that a food has at least 25 per­cent less sodium than a serving of a comparable product. The lowest sodium count in the meats in our tests was 150 mg, but many had far more.

Natural

Meat with this term is supposed to be “minimally processed.” But the Department of Agriculture’s definition of that term doesn’t clarify whether that includes the curing process. That omission allows manufacturers to use “natural” on deli meat labels—even though it is processed.

Healthy

Meats with this claim have to be low in fat and saturated fat, and have no more than 480 mg sodium per serving. But the claim doesn’t take the other health risks of processed meat into consideration. 

No Added Hormones

This is a helpful term for deli meats made from beef, but it’s misleading for those made with poultry and pork. That’s because cattle can be raised with added hormones, but poultry and pork cannot. So even poultry or pork products without a “no hormones” label don’t have added hormones.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the October 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.