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Luncheon meats: bologna or baloney?

Butterball Turkey Bologna must be pretty proud of itself: "80 Percent Fat-free," trumpets its label.

Yet two slices of Butterball contain 12 grams of fat (almost three teaspoons of grease) and get 77 percent of their calories from fat.

Thorn Apple Valley Chicken Bologna is even worse. Two slices have 18 grams of fat and get 90 percent of their calories from fat.

What's going on here? Aren't luncheon meats made from turkey and chicken less fatty than their beef and pork cousins?

Most are about 25 percent leaner, but that's not saying much. A two-slice serving of regular bologna has anywhere from 16 to 18 grams of fat. The problem is: three-quarters of very fatty is still fatty.

By contrast, other poultry cold cuts are truly low in fat-with as few as I or 2 grams of fat per serving.

So how can you tell the bologna from the baloney.9 It's not easy. We recently looked at 271 luncheon meats. By the time we had picked our "Best Bites," the 271 had shrunk to 5.


The fat cut was easy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that most people eat 2 ounces of meat in a sandwich. That's generally two slices. By deciding that those 2 ounces should have no more than 2 grams of fat, we eliminated 238 of our 271 luncheon meats.

Out went dozens of bolognas scores of hams, and deli case full of salamis-many of them with "Lite" or "Lean" in their names. Gone, too, were most cold cuts made from beef or pork.

Why a cutoff of 2 grams of fat?

Because it eliminated most of the meats that get more than 30 percent of their calories from fat. It also got rid of the need to decipher label hype like Butterball's "80 Percent Fat-free." (That's just a sneaky way of saying that fat makes up 20 percent of the bologna's weight.)

forget the label claims: If a two-ounce serving of luncheon meat has two grams of fat or less, it's low in fat. Period.

And you can forget the words "lite" or "lean" on the label. They're no guarantee of a lowfat product. Hormel Light & Lean Bologna and Eckrich Lean Supreme or Lite Bologna may have 25 percent less fat than regular bologna, but each still has 12 grams of fat per serving.

According to the USDA, only about two-thirds of all luncheon meats carry fat information on their labels. It's safe to assume that if there are no fat numbers, the manufacturer's got nothing worth boasting about.

THE SECOND CUT: SODIUM Fat took us from 271 cold cuts to 33. Sodium made it 11.

Our cutoff was a very generous 500 milligrams per two-ounce serving. That's the amount of sodium an adult needs for an entire day, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Here's where we parted company with favorites like Oscar Mayer Oven Roasted Chicken Breast (830 mg), Butterball Turkey Ham (780 mg), Louis Rich Smoked Turkey Breast (588 mg), and Eckrich Siender Sliced Corned Beef (540 mg).

We also disqualified all Hormel Light & Lean meats, since the manufacturer told us it couldn't supply us with sodium figures. Hmmm.

Companies say they add sodium to their cold cuts to help extend shelf life, keep the meat from crumbling, and zip-up the flavor. "People expect it," explains Terry Robertson, of SwiftEckrich.

But our five "Best Bets," each of which has less than 500 mg of sodium, tasted just fine to us. And nary a crumb fell out of our mouths.


Okay. We're down to 11. Now for the final (cold) cut.

Sodium (or potassium) nitrite is a preservative that can prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that cause botulism. It also adds flavor and prevents meat from turning brown or grey.

Nitrite is added to billions of pounds of meat each year. Not surprisingly, it turned up in about 90 percent of the cold cuts we looked at (including every one made from beef or pork).

Nitrite not only adds extra sodium to the products, but it may react with other chemical-usually in the stomach to form tiny amounts of cancer causing nitrosamines. The meat industry denies there's a problem, and continues to use nitrite. Yet, in response to consumer demand, a growing number of chicken and turkey cold cuts are being made without the preservative.

fortunately, every luncheon meat we looked at that was cured with nitrite also contained either sodium ascorbate vitamin C) or a close relative, erythorbate. Both accelerate the curing process, which helps companies get their products to market more quickly.

But-and the manufacturers wouldn't be caught dead admitting it-they also slow the formation of nitrosamines. Whether they stop it completely, no one knows.

Six of our 11 finalists failed the nitrite test. Out went the two smoked turkey breasts, the two salt hams, the chicken breast, and the corned beef.

It's probably a good thing the smoked products flunked out, since we'd probably have to disqualify them anyway. The National Academy of Sciences advises people to limit their intake of smoked foods, to reduce the risk of cancer.

After the smoke cleared, so to speak, we were left with our five Best Bets: turkey breasts by Weaver, Mr. Turkey, Eckrich, and Butterball, and a chicken breast by Mr. Turkey.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Author:Schmidt, Stephen
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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