I’m going to say it outright: I’m not a fan of what most people mean when they say “cold cuts.” The water-laden, gummy, super salty, uniformly shaped, barely recognizable sheets of condensed animal parts just don’t whet my appetite. Yeah, it’s technically meat, but it’s really pushing it. That’s the cheap stuff, though. Those are the cold cuts that come pre-wrapped in the refrigerated section next to the American cheese sliced singles. They run a couple bucks for maybe half a pound but a quarter of it is water. Think bologna, cheap ham, slimy chicken, shiny turkey. I’ll pass, thank you.
But are all cold cuts created equal? I often get the question of whether deli meats are healthy Primal fare. Let’s take a closer look.
Beyond the pale pink, mass-marketed luncheon meats there are better options, the acquisition of which involves approaching a counter, taking a number, placing an order, and leaving with a brown paper package of sliced meat. This type of cold cut, generally derived from turkey, cow, or pig (rather than from some mythical hen sporting a breast gargantuan enough to produce cold cuts spanning a full twelve inches), is obviously real meat. It has striations and streaks of fat (depending on the cut), and you can see the grain. These cuts are usually cooked. Think pastrami, roasted turkey, roast beef, and real ham (although good Spanish hams, like Iberico, are traditionally dry cured and never cooked). This is quality stuff, albeit a bit expensive for what you get. It’ll do in a pinch and it’s a better choice.
Then you’ve got your traditionally cured meats – salame, pepperoni, prosciutto, etc – which can also be (and typically are) eaten cold. Let’s call them cold cuts, too, then. Some of these guys actually share characteristics with the cheap cold cuts. Like bologna, many popular cured artisanal meats are made of bits and pieces of the animals (offal, trimmings, fatback, even the face) in order to wring every last edible drop out of an animal (an honorable goal). It began as necessity, but it’s developed into a culinary art form. The similarities end there, though. Good salami and friends are cured, fermented, and dried for months or even years, rarely if ever seeing heat above 100 degrees F; mass market bologna is subjected to intensive thermal treatment. Cured meats get their flavor from basic seasonings and the inimitable hand of fermenting lactic bacteria, while lunch meat producers employ the blunt force trauma of powerful, secret seasoning blends and perhaps a bit of corn syrup.
So – what’s the verdict? Are they in or out of a Primal Blueprint diet?
Some say cold cuts are an abomination, a testament to man’s ability to ruin a good thing by submitting to the all-powerful god of convenience. I can understand that. I mean, have you looked at a slice of bologna before? Like, really looked closely? It’s pretty frightening. Poke it and watch it jiggle, like when Homer got a checkup.
Of course, blanket condemnations are dangerous. You might get it right, but if you get it wrong you could be missing out on something delicious. Cold cut varieties number in the thousands, if you include all cured meats eaten at room temperature or colder. So, while you might hear “cold cuts,” think Oscar Mayer, and gag a little, you could just as accurately imagine artisanal proscuitto, salame, or mortadella.
That said, no matter how hairy the forearms, bristling the mustache, and thick the accent of the artisan doing the curing, I don’t recommend making cured meat the lion’s share of your meat intake. Enjoy charcuterie with quality cheese, take a salame along as trail food and slice big chunks off with a bowie knife and chew with your mouth open (there’s no one around), blanket your meatza with thinly sliced pepperoni, saute some good diced ham with eggs, onions, and aged cheddar, let a thin slice of Iberico ham melt on your tongue, but don’t let that stuff replace (or even significantly displace) steak, roasts, chops, or ribs in your diet. For me, cold cuts and cured meats just aren’t the same as a juicy steak. If you’re not convinced, do a few weeks of heavy, near-exclusive cured meat intake – an n=1 experiment. Take a cue from Robb Wolf, and see how you “look, feel, and perform.” I did exactly that – I spent almost a week eating way more cold cuts than fresh meat.
This wasn’t something I set out to do, but it just so happened that we had a ton of really high quality Italian style cold cuts from Applegate Farms and a local supplier left over from a get together that fell through. It was a wide assortment of salami, pepperoni, soppressata, coppa, and a few others. I tried everything. I made omelets, threw soppressata into salads, gnawed on hunks of dried meat. But I felt bad. Not terrible, just not good. What’s interesting is that Applegate Farms is one of the good ones. They feed grass to cows and “respect the land,” and they seem to use traditional methods; the salami and pepperoni were definitely fermented and slow dried, rather than cooked.
A good rule of thumb is “fresh is best.” If you’re going to eat processed food (like a good cured meat), keep it infrequent, pick stuff that’s been processed according to artisanal or traditional standards, or do the processing yourself. And don’t use it as a daily major source of calories. For one, it’s expensive. If you’re tempted by the affordability of Oscar Mayer and company, consider that conventional ground beef, liver, and other “throwaway” cuts are far cheaper – and they’re actually fresh, real, and free of inflated water volume. Secondly, you’ll be eating massive amounts of sodium, which can complicate hypertension in salt-sensitive individuals and lead to excessive water retention. (I’ve no problem with salt; I just like adding it myself to my food for flavor and texture rather than have it injected directly into the food for me. I don’t need every single inch of my meat to be brimming with briny flavor).
My general recommendations are to:
Stick to the quality stuff, with ingredients you recognize.
Eat moderate amounts. Use it as a garnish, trail food, with cheese (if you do dairy), or as a topping on other dishes.
Buy from trusted suppliers if it’s cured and in sausage form; if it’s straight up turkey breast or roast beef, make sure it comes from a single slab of real animal.
What are your favorite cold cuts? Do they make the, ahem, cut?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.