Hormel’s 100% Natural Deli Meats and High Pressure Processing

Fooducate community member Tom emailed us with a question about deli meats:

Hi Fooducaters - Wondering if you can turn a critical eye towards Hormel’s Natural Choice line. I have been buying it, but frankly, it does not seem expensive enough to make me believe they are truly producing a healthier product. It is “100% Natural**”, would like to get your opinion.

Great question, Tom. As always, the best way to learn about a product is to read the ingredient list and nutrition label.

Hormel’s Natural Choice line boasts 100% Natural Ingredients:

Treat your taste buds—no preservatives or artificial ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Here’s a deeper look at one of the products – Honey Deli Turkey.

What you need to know:

First off, the term “Natural” is meaningless from a legal perspective. There is no USDA or FDA regulation specifying what a natural product is. As a result the term has been adopted widely by the food industry, with a wide open interpretation leaving us consumers confused.

From a nutriton perspective, deli meats all share an Achille’s heel – very high sodium content. A 2 ounce serving has 450mg (about 18% of the daily max) for a mere 60 calories (just 3% of your daily calories). Turkey breast is very low in saturated fat and is a good source of protein, and this product is no exception.

Here is the ingredient list:

Turkey Breast Meat, Water, Honey, Salt, Turbinado Sugar, Potato Starch, Rice Starch, Carrageenan (from seaweed), Baking Soda, Natural Flavoring, Lactic Acid Starter Culture (not from Milk).

There are no scary preservatives here. That does not automatically make this product a health food, but at least there are no carcinogenic nitrites and nitrates.

So how exactly is the meat preserved, you may ask?

The answer is HPP, high pressure processing. Not sure how “natural” a process this is, because the pressure produced is 4 times that of the deepest ocean floor. But it seems very promising.

Basically, after the meat is packaged, the package is placed in a special chamber. The chamber is then pressurized with water at up to 87,000 pounds per square inch or approximately 6,000 atmospheres! This high level of pressure causes all the potential pathogens (salmonella, other bacteria, etc…) to burst and die:

In a typical HPP process, the product is packaged in a flexible container (usually a pouch or plastic bottle) and is loaded into a high pressure chamber filled with a pressure-transmitting (hydraulic) fluid. The hydraulic fluid (normally water) in the chamber is pressurized with a pump, and this pressure is transmitted through the package into the food itself. Pressure is applied for a specific time, usually 3 to 5 minutes. The processed product is then removed and stored/distributed in the conventional manner. Because the pressure is transmitted uniformly (in all directions simultaneously), food retains its shape, even at extreme pressures. read more from Ohio State University

If you are having a hard time visualizing this, think about your ears popping when you’re in an airplane. Only multiply it by a six thousand.

High Pressure Processing is a relatively new processing method, and it is very expensive (a machine can cost upward of $1 million). So far the main concern with this method is how the high pressure affects the food packaging.

As for the filler ingredients in this specific product, they are used to bind the Turkey, water, and flavorings. If your deli turkey seems too cheap, it may be that there is a lot more water in the product than you imagined.

Bottom line: While deli meats should not become a staple meat in your diet, Hormel’s innovative solution at least does not contain problematic preservatives.

What to do at the supermarket:

When selecting deli meats, make sure to choose those that do not include nitrates or nitrites. Watch out for extensive use of fillers which indicate less meat, more water. And check the sodium content too.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000038741888 Cheryl Scifers

     deli meats should not become a staple meat in your diet- when you say this it concerns me. My 3 year old will only eat ham and ketchup sandwiches. all day everyday. I buy hillshire farms lunchmeat. Whole wheat bread. Anyways, maybe thats why hes always so thirsty! The sodium! How else could so many ham sandwiches be bad? I always assumed it was ok. Better than kid cuisines or Chef boyardee.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/blog Fooducate

      Deli meats are very processed. You’re not getting prime cuts of the meat. And the sodium is high. Much better to find original cuts of meat and find a recipe your soon will enjoy…

    • Megiovanni1

      Hi Cheryl,  Children go through various stages so I wouldn’t worry about his food choice.  Have a variety of foods available and keep offering him alternatives (and eat them, too) and eventually he will begin to choose different foods.  M. Giovanni, PhD (Nutrition and Food Science)

    • Anna

      Try looking for a European deli rather than a pre-packaged supermarket (like your Hillshire Farms) – at least then the meat is fresh cut.  At my local deli, they get some of the meat from a Mennonite area (2hr drive for me) that I wouldn’t otherwise have regular access to.  I find their all-beef salami to have a DRAMATICALLY different flavour compared to the usual deli salami – much yummier.  I like to hope that it’s a healthier option when choosing to eat “cold cuts”.

    • Tracy

      Hi Cheryl, From what I’ve heard Boar’s Head has the least processed products available at most deli’s.

  • Jill

    WOW!  Who knew!  Thank you so much for you informative blog.

  • Mr Natural

    Your statement that there are no USDA regulations as to what “natural” means in the context of meat products is only partially correct.  While it has no “regulations”, it does have a definition of “natural” in its Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book.  Since all labels for USDA-regulated products are pre-approved by USDA-FSIS, labels which use the “natural” term in a manner that violates USDA’s policy are not approved and therefore never make it into commerce.  In essence, the Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book constitute the relevant regulation with respect to natural labeling.  As to FDA (though not relevant to this post), you surely are aware that while there are no official regulations, FDA does adhere to its Federal Register entry from 1993 (58 Fed. Reg. 2303, 23297, 2307-2308) with respect to enforcement of “all natural” labeling claims.  And of course the term “natural” as it relates to flavors and colors in FDA-regulated foods is defined under 21 CFR 101.22 – though USDA-FSIS also follows this definition.

  • FoodTool

    But it still is not expensive enough to possibly be a healthy food. That’s the mainmost criteria – cost – the food snob’s unfailing barometer of nutritional quality and safety. Surely affordable goods are inferior and the most stunningly overpriced is the finest quality, no? If Hormel would sell it just under the price of gold there would be no cause to inquire about quality or even to read the label. I am unimpressed with the cheapness of the Hormel label.

  • My Munch Bug

    Can anyone tell me if the pressurization process either A: creates heat and/or B: can cause a release of chemicals from the plastic?  Since we know we shouldn’t heat food in plastic due to health concerns, I am wondering about his process.

  • mgallavan

    Carrageenan is used in a number of “healthy” products but is also used in test animals to mimic digestive problems. I’ve also seen it on lists of possible stomach and digestive irrititants. My family avoids it. Any thoughts on this?

  • Anonymous

    You get to a point where you don’t think that much will shock you, but this article in Mother Jones on the Hormel factory shocked me to the core.
    http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/hormel-spam-pig-brains-disease
    While it’s focus is on injury to it’s workers on the line and not on Hormel’s products, it’s pretty clear this isn’t a warm and fuzzy company interested in people’s well being. 

    Reading a description of how their products are made, may help you decide if you want to eat them.

    I’m tempted to say, don’t read it on a full stomach.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000038741888 Cheryl Scifers

      I will read it. I don’t buy this product anyways.

  • Jim Cooper

    The American Cancer Society does not consider nitrites in preserved meats to be dangerous to humans. 

    Interesting article on high pressure, but the article on HPP from Ohio State is only
    marginally literate. This process is also called Pascalization and there is a better article
    in Wikipedia.

    Also, you need to proofread more carefully:Achilles, not Achille’snutrition, not nutritonThere is also a lot of Gratuitous Capitalization:  Turkey, for example.

  • Afalea

    There is also the question of the turkey itself, before it becomes the final product–was it raised in an open-air pen with room to walk around, or did it spend its life in a cage with no room to move?  Was it given growth hormones and antibiotics?  Maybe the deli meat doesn’t contain too many weird ingredients, but it’s always important to think about the life of the meat, or any other product, before it arrives at the processing plant.  From what I’ve heard and read about Hormel, I don’t believe that free-range, organic turkey is one of their specialties…

  • Crystal

    Unfortunately, their packaging states ‘no nitrates or nitrites added’ and in small letters ‘except for those naturally occurring in natural flavoring’ with ‘natural flavoring’ being listed in the ingredients list. What exactly is in that ‘natural flavoring’? Nitrates and/or Nitrites.