Is Ham Paleo?

If we are going to operate strictly on the “did a cave girl eat it” principle, then our answer is a big fat “no.” However, I’m going to need a little more science than that. Let’s take a closer look at the ingredients of ham, and other deli meats, to see what goes into those convenient little slices of heaven, and whether or not we should partake.


One of the first things I learned when I started the Paleo diet was to read food labels. Such a simple thing, yet I’d never thought to flip the package over and see what I was putting in my body. Have you ever read the label on a package of ham or other lunch meat? They are often loaded with unsavory ingredients like modified food starch (made from corn, wheat or soy), dextrose, dairy, soy concentrate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), carrageenan (linked to cancer), caramel color (linked to cancer) and artificial flavoring just to name a few. I probably don’t have to go into explicit detail as to why these things are not Paleo. The majority of these are not even food. We definitely want to steer clear of these questionable additives.


Have you ever wondered where that perfectly oblong, sliceable piece of meat came from? And what about that texture? Have you ever pulled chicken off the bone and bit into a wet, mushy, circular piece of meat? Didn’t think so. After removing large pieces of meat from the bone, it is chopped and mixed with less desirable cuts of meat that would not sell if put on the shelf as they are. Then binders and emulsifiers (again – NOT food) are added to the mix so that all the pieces will stick together. This lovely mixture is squeezed into casing, cooked or smoked, then sliced. It is less bothersome that there are unpopular cuts of meat mixed up in there, than the fact that these pieces are being chemically bound together. It’s also safe to assume that this meat did not come from grass-fed, pastured, or organic sources unless it is specifically stated on the packaging.


Nitrates and nitrites are compounds added to deli meat for the purpose of keeping bacteria at bay. These bad boys made the news some time ago and were listed as the culprit for the processed meat/cancer link. The research has since been proven wrong by numerous studies. In fact, there has even been evidence that suggests these compounds may be beneficial. Nitrates and nitrites are found in much higher concentrations in vegetables than in lunch meat, and even higher concentrations in our saliva.

The bad rap comes from the fact that nitrites have the potential to become nitrosamine which is a known carcinogen. Nitrosamine is formed during cooking. The higher the heat the more nitrosamine is produced. Manufacturers often add Vitamin C in order to prevent this dangerous formation. Additionally, most people eat their cold cuts cold.

The statement “no nitrate or nitrites added” on deli meat packaging is misleading. Remember I told you that vegetables are high in these compounds? Those sneaky manufactures know this and use it to their advantage. Brands that advertise this often use celery or beet juice and can even end up containing more nitrates and nitrites than traditional brands. I’m not advising against the purchase of these products. Oftentimes these are the brands that offer the fewest ingredients and avoidance of some of the sketchier additives; however, be aware that you are not avoiding nitrates.

While research no longer points to nitrates and nitrites as cancer causing ingredients, the link between cancer and processed meat still remains. The more deli meat you eat, the greater the risk. What is specifically responsible for this link is still unknown.


With all of the less than stellar things listed above you may be surprised to know that many prominent and trustworthy voices in the Paleo community don’t ban cold cuts from their diet. Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint, recommends eating only the highest quality, and doing so infrequently. While you may be hard pressed to find deli meat that checks off every Paleo box, there are certainly some things to look for that will help you make the best choice. A slab of real meat (not those formed cylinders) that is freshly sliced is a great choice if it’s available. Always read the label before you purchase. Do you know what those things are? Avoid long lists of things you don’t recognize – the shorter the better. Steer clear of things like modified food starch, MSG, and carrageenan.

Applegate Farms, Heidi’s, and Deistel are great choices as far as lunch meat is concerned. But before you whip up a batch of Paleo bread and go sandwich crazy, remember that even the best cold cuts are still processed food. One of the hallmarks of the Paleo diet is consuming real, whole foods. The Paleo diet, in my humble opinion, is not simply about adhering to an approved list of food, but rather about reshaping your idea of what food is. So please, enjoy your ham, but do so responsibly.

By Mandy Miller


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