Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
31 Mar

Meat Musings: Are Cold Cuts Primal?

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?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Everything in moderation. Great post! I am on a diet plan eating 6 small meals a day. I found this site on spark people where this lady lost 100 pounds and then did a beauty pageant. You have to see photos to really believe it but Here is her site:
    I think it is great to get my apple a day.

    thanks Mark!

    kaitlynn wrote on March 31st, 2011
  2. We love Applegate Farms! I found them first at an organic food depot, but then unfortunately I found myself in a Trader Joe’s (cough*overrated*cough) and they had the cold cuts there, along with the hot dogs for $2 cheaper than OFD. The hot dogs are grass fed organic, all beef, no nitrates, uncured, gluten/casein free, etc. My 18mo old loves them… the babysitter fed her her sons first, and I couldn’t have her eating that crap, so because I have a picky eater and we only do grass fed/pastured meats, I was on the search to replace conventional children’s food with a much better option! Yay for feeding children the primal way:)

    Channing M wrote on March 31st, 2011
  3. Mark, next time your get together falls through, just give me a call and I’ll help plow through those cured treasures!

    Aaron Blaisdell wrote on March 31st, 2011
  4. I can’t find any coldcuts that aren’t cured in some for of sugar, dextrose or corn syrup. I’ve looked good and hard and even Apple Gate doesn’t pass muster so it’s always a pass for me!

    mandy wrote on March 31st, 2011
  5. I very rarely eat cold cuts. If I do I make sure they are nitrate free.

    Gary Deagle wrote on March 31st, 2011
  6. For a parent with three children under the age of six, GOOD coldcuts (sliced turkey breast, non-nitrate hot dogs and ham) are a God-send while switching kids to the primal lifestyle. We travel a lot, and are not wealthy enough to order steak for the five of us while on the road, so deli shops that offer a breadless sandwich are fabulous. The kids feel don’t feel like mom is keeping them from their favorites, and I can at least find comfort in the fact that I’m feeding them lettuce, tomatoes, mayo and MEAT!

    Sara wrote on March 31st, 2011
  7. Honestly, I am repelled by the very thought of cold cuts, sausages and processed meats. I
    come from a cooking tradition where meat is mostly braised, grilled, fried or baked, and always
    served hot. And it tastes unbelievably good! As a result, I have never found cold cuts appetizing and have eaten them rarely and only out of necessity (on a catamaran). Give me some stew or sir fry any day. I’ll pass on the salami!

    Sabrina wrote on March 31st, 2011
  8. I thought that processed meats, such as strasburg,contain a lot of connective tissue, tendons, ligaments and so on which provides a good source of chondroitin and glucosamine which were almost surely a part of primal diets but no in high levels in fresh meat cuts.

    Colin wrote on April 1st, 2011
  9. So where does beloved bacon (and its fat) fall out in all this? (assuming its organic, nitrate free) should it be limited consumption like coldcuts????

    barb wrote on April 1st, 2011
  10. Great post. I enjoy rolling up some deli cut roast turkey breast with a slice or two of herbed salami from Applegate farms. This creates a quick snack for me during the week. It makes up only a fraction of my weekly meat intake and I don’t see a problem with it.

    Roast turkey ingredients: Turkey breast, water, salt, paprika, spices.

    Let’s face it — eating primally typically involves preparing absolutely everything from scratch. It’s nice to have a healthy convenience food from time to time. Fantastic idea about the meat slicer, though. Appreciate that info.

    oak_dweller wrote on April 1st, 2011
  11. What timing! I picked up some rare roast beef at the deli counter yesterday (Dietz and Watson London Broil) sliced medium, it’s red goodness just melted in my mouth.

    Served it rolled around julianned carrots, bell peppers and pickled banana peppers with a bit of dijon mustard, and wrapped the whole thing in a leaf of swiss chard.

    Worked very well (though it would also be good on its own…)

    Mike O wrote on April 1st, 2011
  12. This brings up an ancillary question – what about smoked meats. I’m a sucker for slow cooked smoked beef and pork. Its an old preservation method, but anyone have an opinion on the primal health impacts? I’m undecided.

    Jason wrote on April 1st, 2011
  13. I was disappointed in this post (and that’s unusual – most of Mark’s posts are great). Just because “water-laden, gummy, super salty, uniformly shaped, barely recognizable sheets of condensed animal parts” aren’t appealing doesn’t by itself make them un-Primal.

    I happen to like bologna, hot dogs, “cold cuts”, and yes, even Spam. And if offal is used in them, more reason to eat them, since I can’t seem to gag down beef liver no matter how I try to hide the flavor.

    So, why shouldn’t I eat them? Too much salt, perhaps? If you read the literature, the jury is clearly still out on nitrates/nitrites, though one poster mentioned nitrosamines when nitrates/nitrites are heated, which is perhaps part of the answer. Too much processing? Well, just what kind of processing, and why is it bad?

    I think the whole “processed” thing would be worth a more detailed post – it has become a catch-all phrase bandied about too loosely to hold much meaning. I’d guess most foods we consume (except fresh veggies & fruits) are processed in some way.

    For example, processing could be mechanical (and not just cutting/chopping – butter is mechanically processed); it might cover chemical additions (from natural additions like salt and spices to unpronouncable chemicals); there is processing with heat and pressure, etc. The Weston Price folks are big on lacto-fermentation – that’s a kind of processing. Cooking is processing, often with the addition of chemicals as well; etc.

    In any case, I suspect the basic premise that cold cuts aren’t good for us is true (darnit!), but this article was short on facts and long on personal likes & dislikes.

    John wrote on April 1st, 2011
  14. Hi there
    what about Wild Pig and Wild Deer salami? surely they must be OK apart from the curing salts?

    They taste great anyhow, blood is a instinctive love for me. Raw meat love it (Steak Tartar).

    Daniel S wrote on April 1st, 2011
  15. We all know what’s good for us and what isn’t, but you’ve got to love the sights & smells of a good deli! Why even live if we can’t enjoy ourselves now and then. Loved the Simpson’s ref. thanks, jwing

    jwing wrote on April 2nd, 2011
  16. I am huge fan of cold cuts. I have found that Boar’s Head is the best when it comes to Deli. Upon my primal shift, I did a little research and found they don’t use any hfcs, are gluten free and always whole muscle. We have also found a good portion of the products are nitrate and nitrite free.

    EVH wrote on April 2nd, 2011
  17. Why cold cuts can’t be your primary meat source: they are really expense. Jamon Iberico Bellota — $200? Even real chorizo is expensive. Good quality salmani is $15-$20 for a small amount.

    They are great stuff, and learn to use the in moderation!

    charlie wrote on April 4th, 2011
  18. Salt is not primal. It may be a contributing factor to acidosis and sleep problems.

    Does any processed meat have no salt added? I doubt it.

    Don wrote on April 6th, 2011
  19. If you want to avoid the guilt of cold cuts, simply buy them all at Whole Foods like my family does. They are very high quality and nitrite/nitrate-free. And amazingly, they don’t cost more than supermarket cold cuts. Our favorite is Turkey Bologna. It is of excellent quality and taste and we try to always have it in the house. Once, we had to stop at a supermarket for some bologna but we ended up throwing it out. It was like eating something out of chemistry lab. Totally disgusting!

    Vince N. wrote on April 6th, 2011
  20. I roast my own meats, and then slice them with a meat slicer that I purchased for my home. There is nothing better than fresh roast beef slices from your own kitchen! And although turkey and chicken breast slices turn out small, they are delicious when sliced thin, and there is no salt to speak of!

    Theresa wrote on April 6th, 2011
  21. I choose ones gluten free (no msg) and w/o nitrates or nitrites.
    These are way better for you, wont give headaches…etc.

    of course i dont live on them, but sometimes they are awesome quick fix for snack.
    you have to ask or make sure to check the ingredients though or you might end up w/ crappy cold cuts.

    alison wrote on April 6th, 2011
  22. Apart from hidden sugars in cold cuts,they’re usually full of mononatriumglutamate too,which is a known stimulant to keep on eating and can lead to various neurological mallfunctions.

    joey wrote on April 6th, 2011
  23. I’m not so sure whey protein powder is primal either, but given the choice between that and cold cuts or an animal protein source I feel wary about, I’ll choose the whey any day. I’m just back from a 6 day trip where I knew access to primal food would be limited, so I had a whey shake for breakfast and lunch (via the hotel bartender, who make them in a blender with berries and the almond meal I also brought with me). Those 2 shakes and a big dinner each night sustained me for the duration of the trip. And it all aligned nicely with the fast, primal style work out i did every morning. I drank tons of water, of course. I felt great the whole time, and came home a few pounds lighter. Here’s the brand of whey powder I like best: I hope this info eases travel for some of you!

    Susan Alexander wrote on April 6th, 2011
  24. What about Chorizo?
    I like it a lot as convenient snacker to switch things up every now and then.

    Edje Noh wrote on April 6th, 2011
  25. What kind of meat does Subway use?

    Mary wrote on April 6th, 2011
  26. I’ve been making my own jerky as an alternative–and oh, btw, it’s portable so I’m never stuck somewhere (starving) and have to eat something no in my best interest. It’s fun to do, I’ve experimented with recipes, drying time and different cuts. Fun and healthy!

    ellie wrote on April 6th, 2011
    • Hi Ellie,
      Can you post some of your favorite recipes? I’d like to start trying to make my own jerky! :) Thanks

      Tiffany wrote on April 7th, 2011
  27. We’re lucky to have some great local artisanal meat producers here. I can even get an amazing locally made liverwurst (my processed meat weakness)!!

    Robin wrote on April 6th, 2011
  28. This has been a long time issue for me. Coming from a European heratige we always had that stuff around. I remember as a small kid carving up some brown bread and slathering it with 2cm of lard with some salt. But I digress.

    I now buy pork belly, roast it with my favorite seasoning on a bed of onions and some duck fat. Then I take it out and place in the fridge in a nother container, that is my substitute for everything cold cuts. Works well and with a small meat slicer you wouldnt tell the difference, it will last a week without a problem covered up in fridge, except it dosent LOL . The fatty pork belly is much more paletable cold to most people. AND cold cuts need to be pork, its tradition ! :)

    Just a word on liverwurst for Robin and others. I make my own and it is farrr superior and healthy then anything else on the market, I feel no guilt wolfing down a few hundred grams of that stuff.

    Take some liver (good qualtity fresh only any kind you like) cut up some onions and fry in a pot with some lard or duck fat. (use 1 onion for about 250gm of liver) You can add some bacon (dont trim aything off just throw it in) for flavour or just salt and some oregano or chives ….. what ever , then add garlick to your taste. Now even before its fried properly , (we are just looking for a bit of browning on the livers) stick a food blender into it and blend it to bits. Add butter about 100gm for 250gm of livers. I dont really have measurments as I just stick enough in for the mixture to be nice and ‘watery’. Keep cooking it for another 5 to 10 min stearing the brown mess. Then blend more untill fine.

    That is your livewurst or liver pate. NOW the final and most important trick. If you make it like that you will end up getting grizle in your teeth and its probably the reason why most people only try this once.

    The trick is to get a fine strainer and while the mixture is still warm press it through the strainer using a spoon or otherwise. What is left in the strainer is the crap (dont be supprised by the amount for crap left over, and remember the store bought stuff has all that in grined to a pulp)and on the other side of the strainer is the smooth and beautifull pate. Collect it in a bowl and then pour some lard/butter mixture over the top to stop oxidation and cover and store in the fridge.

    The whole process takes about 30 min or even less. The best part is that you know exactly what you are eating and can alter the taste to your preference.


    Michal wrote on April 6th, 2011
  29. Hey I am a big fan of animal parts, it’s just that I am not crazy about the other junk they put into the meats, mainly corn derivatives. Its practically impossible to find a good braunschweiger that does not contain corn syrup.

    Kenneth wrote on April 6th, 2011
    • is a braunschweiger without corn – it’s a 60/40 mix of beef and beef liver. Ingredients: beef, beef liver, water, sea salt, onion powder, honey, white pepper, coriander, marjoram, allspice.

      Only way I can eat liver is liverwurst or braunschweiger – so for me, some cold cuts are always on the menu as there’s no other way to get liver down.

      Otherwise, I think cold cuts are just too expensive. I love me some proscuitto or pepperoni now and then, but not regularly cause it’s just too expensive.

      Bacon is non-negotiable around here. That it is uncured means it’s just as susceptible to botulism as ALL fresh meats. So what? I’m not going to store bacon in the cupboard anyways. It’s fresh meat, goes in the freezer until it thaws in the fridge before being cooked.

      Most often “lunch meat” here is just sliced turkey from a whole turkey, sliced ham from a half or whole ham, leftover sliced roast beef from a dinner roast, or chicken salad made from the remains of a chicken carcass. Meat is a LOT cheaper when you cook it yourself.

      jpatti wrote on April 8th, 2011
  30. hi
    useful to know.. how would you relate this to beef jerky or southafican biltong, more of the dried meats?

    chris wrote on April 7th, 2011
  31. OK: ditch the salt, nitrate, & other process additives. One is left with the dried & fermented or, that other dried meat, jerky & its offspring, pemmican. Neither of these is sitting inside an old intestine, which probably went to some other use. Yes, fresh is best; yet there are better ways to store & preserve than refrigeration. I did make my own jerky & pemmican, from beef, it is good, but I don’t eat it all that often.

    Raven_Glance wrote on April 7th, 2011
  32. We recently started buying whole pork bellies in order to make our own bacon. Still in the experimental stages but the first batch was delicous!!

    Mark wrote on April 7th, 2011
  33. Preserved meat has a LOT of salt. Salt has been found to IMMEDIATELY impact arterial flexibility. (causing some researchers to hypothesize that this lack of flexibility, rather than water retention, is why salt has such a role in HBP.) So if you eat a lot of cured meat, you will eat a lot of salt and you will feel worse.

    Linda wrote on April 7th, 2011
  34. I’ve made sausage, bacon and cured meats for more than 20 years for my family’s enjoyment. Mark, you are spot on about the ‘Oscar Meyer type’ commercial products. They have neither the taste nor quality of home made. That said, the difference between oft-hailed (and loved) bacon and high quality sausage is a matter of commutation. The sausage gets ground before it passes one’s lips. Meat, spices, salt and nitrite are virtually identical. Oh- and the folks over at are awesome. I recommend their site and their books.
    Kind regards

    AJ wrote on April 7th, 2011

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