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Are Processed Turkey Slices Bad For You?

Also Known As: Deli turkey, Sliced turkey



Short answer

Processed turkey slices can be high in sodium and contain additives like nitrates and nitrites, which may pose health risks like increased blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, and certain cancers. Moderation and choosing low-sodium, nitrate-free options are advisable to mitigate these risks.



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Long answer

Sodium Content and Potential Health Risks in Processed Turkey

The convenience of processed turkey slices makes them a staple in many diets, but their sodium content can pose significant health risks. Deli meats, including turkey slices, are typically high in sodium due to preservatives like sodium nitrate and salt, which are used to enhance flavor and prolong shelf life. Understanding the impact of sodium on health and the amount present in processed turkey is vital.

Sodium Levels in Processed Turkey

According to the USDA, 2 ounces (56 grams) of processed turkey can contain between 450-1050 mg of sodium, which accounts for a substantial portion of the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of 2,300 mg per day, with an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults.

Health Implications

  • Blood Pressure: High sodium intake is linked to increases in blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The CDC reports that reducing sodium intake can improve blood pressure and cardiovascular health.
  • Heart Disease: Research has indicated that high sodium consumption is associated with a greater risk of developing heart disease. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that those who consume high levels of sodium had a significantly higher risk of cardiac events.
  • Stroke: Excessive sodium can lead to stroke, independent of blood pressure effects, as suggested by a study in the journal Stroke, which found a higher incidence of stroke in individuals with high dietary sodium intake.
  • Osteoporosis: There’s evidence suggesting that high-sodium diets may lead to increased calcium loss, potentially affecting bone density and increasing the risk of osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
  • Kidney Function: The kidneys are tasked with filtering out excess sodium, and a high-sodium diet can lead to kidney strain over time, potentially causing kidney disease. The American Society of Nephrology notes a clear link between sodium intake and kidney disease progression.

Recommendations for Intake

To mitigate these risks, it is recommended to limit the intake of processed turkey slices and other deli meats, especially for individuals with hypertension, heart disease, or kidney problems. Choosing low-sodium options or freshly roasted turkey can be healthier alternatives. In addition, incorporating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help balance sodium levels in the body.


It is crucial for consumers to be aware of their sodium intake from processed turkey slices and to consider the potential health risks. Regular consumption of high-sodium foods can have lasting health impacts, but with careful dietary choices, these risks can be managed.

Nitrates and Nitrites: Preservatives in Turkey Slices

When assessing the health implications of processed turkey slices, it is crucial to consider the role of nitrates and nitrites. These compounds are commonly used as preservatives in the meat industry for their ability to extend shelf life and maintain a desirable pink color. However, their safety in food has been a topic of controversy and emerging scientific interest.

Nitrates (NO3) and nitrites (NO2) are naturally occurring chemicals found in soil, water, and some foods. In the context of processed meats, synthetic sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate is often added to inhibit the growth of bacteria, particularly Clostridium botulinum, and to preserve flavor and color.

The human body does convert nitrates into nitrites, which can then form nitrosamines, potential carcinogens, under certain high-heat cooking conditions or in the acidic environment of the stomach. The concern arises from studies indicating that consumption of nitrosamines is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, particularly those of the digestive tract.

Despite the potential risks, the human body does require a certain amount of nitrates for functions such as blood flow regulation and signaling molecules in the cardiovascular system. In fact, vegetables are a primary source of dietary nitrates, and when consumed as part of a balanced diet, these can actually have beneficial vascular effects.

However, the conversion of nitrates to nitrites and subsequently to nitrosamines in processed meats could be harmful over time, especially when consumed in large quantities. Evidence suggests that moderation in the consumption of nitrate/nitrite-containing processed meats, like turkey slices, is advisable.

It's worth mentioning that some manufacturers offer "nitrate-free" or "no nitrites added" products, typically using celery juice or powder – a natural source of nitrates – instead of synthetic preservatives. These may be considered as alternatives, though they still contain naturally occurring nitrates which can undergo similar conversions to nitrites and nitrosamines.

In light of the potential health risks posed by nitrates and nitrites in processed turkey slices, consumers should be proactive in reading labels, opting for leaner, less-processed sources of protein when possible, and moderating their intake of processed meats overall to mitigate associated health risks.

Expert opinions and current dietary guidelines recommend varied protein sources and caution against over-reliance on processed meats. It's critical for consumers to consider both the risks and the nutritional context of their overall diet when evaluating the implications of consuming processed turkey slices.

Processed Meats and their Association with Cancer Risk

The consumption of processed meats, including turkey slices, has been a topic of interest within the scientific community for its potential health implications, particularly its association with cancer risk. To get a comprehensive view, it's essential to delve deep into what scientific research has uncovered.

First, let’s address what falls under the category of processed meats. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), processed meats are classified as those that have been transformed through curing, salting, smoking, fermentation, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Turkey slices often undergo such treatments and therefore are included in this category.

In a pivotal evaluation from 2015, the IARC classified processed meats as Group 1, which means they are "carcinogenic to humans". This places processed meats in the same category as tobacco smoking and asbestos, but this does not imply that they are equally hazardous. The classification is based on the strength of the scientific evidence regarding an agent's potential to cause cancer, rather than the actual risk level.

Research points toward a compound found in processed meats called N-nitroso compounds, including nitrites and nitrates, which can transform into carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds in the body. Cooking at high temperatures, such as frying or grilling, can also lead to the formation of other potential carcinogens like heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Epidemiological studies have drawn correlations between processed meat consumption and an increased risk of several cancer types, notably colorectal cancer. A review of multiple studies by the IARC estimated that each 50 gram portion of processed meat consumed daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%. It's worth noting that while these statistics are significant, they refer to relative risk, which is different from the absolute risk of developing cancer.

However, experts also note that the risk of cancer from processed meat while concerning, is not as large as other factors such as smoking. It's a matter of context and the cumulative lifestyle and environmental factors that play into the overall cancer risk.

To contextualize the data for everyday eating habits, a balanced diet that favors plant-based foods, paired with moderation in consumption of processed meats, could help mitigate the potential risks. While there's no need to eliminate processed turkey slices completely from one's diet, it's prudent to consume them in moderation, alongside a variety of unprocessed meats and plenty of fruits and vegetables which have cancer-protective properties.

For those concerned about their consumption of processed meats, such as turkey slices, you may consider seeking options that are free from added nitrates or nitrites and choosing products from brands that emphasize natural processing methods.

It should be noted that the field of nutritional epidemiology is complex and constantly evolving. Studies often rely on observational data, which can show associations but not causation. Therefore, while the association between processed meats and cancer risk is supported by numerous studies, recommendations may evolve as new research emerges.

In conclusion to this section, the relationship between processed turkey slices and cancer risk is one piece of the larger puzzle concerning diet and health. It’s wise for consumers to keep abreast of the latest scientific findings and work towards a balanced, varied diet.

When integrating this information into your life, always consider the bigger picture of dietary patterns and overall lifestyle choices. Consulting with healthcare providers or nutritionists can help translate these findings into personal health plans.

Delving into the Quality of Meat in Processed Turkey Products

When considering the quality of meat in processed turkey slices, one must navigate through various factors that influence its nutritional value and potential health implications. The sourcing of the turkey, the processing methods used, and the additives included are all points of interest for any health-conscious consumer.

Sourcing of the Turkey: The origin of the turkey meat used in processed slices can play a significant role in overall quality. Free-range or organic turkey options tend to have a higher standard of animal welfare and are less likely to be administered antibiotics or growth hormones, which some experts suggest might contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans or impact hormone balance. However, scientific consensus on these implications is still an ongoing discussion.

Processing Methods: The processing method can determine the healthiness of the slices. Minimally processed turkey is a healthier pick, often containing fewer preservatives and maintaining more of its natural nutrients. In contrast, heavily processed turkey might contain various non-meat additives, such as water, for weight and preservation. These additional ingredients can dilute the nutritional quality of the meat.

Meat Content and Additives: The actual meat content in turkey slices can be confusing. Legally, products labeled as "turkey breast" should predominantly contain turkey breast meat. However, some brands may incorporate mechanically separated turkey, which is a paste-like product produced by forcing bones and attached edible tissue through a sieve under high pressure to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue. This method can potentially introduce more calcium into the meat but also raises concerns about the texture and quality.

Examined closely, many processed turkey products contain:

  • Salt, often in high amounts, which serves as both a preservative and a flavor enhancer. The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams a day, moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults.
  • Phosphates, which are used to retain moisture and texture, can be harmful in excess amounts and have an association with kidney disease and cardiovascular issues.
  • Nitrates or nitrites are commonly used to prevent bacterial growth and improve flavor but have been linked in some studies to an increased risk of certain types of cancer, though the precise risk level and necessary exposure remain debated topics in the scientific community.

As consumers, understanding these elements about the turkey slices you purchase can be pivotal. When available, searching for "no nitrates added," "no artificial preservatives," or "100% turkey breast" on labels could guide you towards a better quality choice.

Nutritional Value: Despite potential negatives, it's noteworthy to mention that turkey is a good source of essential nutrients such as protein, vitamins B6 and B12, niacin, choline, selenium, and zinc. For those opting for processed turkey slices, choosing brands with a simple and transparent ingredient list, where the turkey itself is the star, could ensure you are getting the most nutritional value from your choice.

Lastly, the method of preparation also contributes to the quality of the meat in processed turkey products. Turkey slices that are smoked or flavored may contain additional chemicals or substances that could affect health, making it important to review ingredient lists carefully.

In summation, while processed turkey slices offer convenience, consumers should consider the trade-offs in quality and potential health impacts. By becoming a conscientious shopper and understanding what goes into your food, you can make an enjoyable and healthier choice that aligns with your dietary preferences and needs.

Balancing Convenience with Nutritional Health: Processed Turkey in Your Diet

When it comes to processed turkey slices, convenience is often the main selling point. Such products allow for quick and easy meal preparation, which is an attractive benefit for those with busy lifestyles. However, it is crucial to consider the potential effects that adding processed turkey to your diet can have on your nutritional health.

Firstly, processed turkey is a good source of protein, which is necessary for muscle repair and growth, as well as overall body function. It can also be low in fat compared to other processed meats, making it a seemingly healthier choice for those monitoring their fat intake. However, not all processed turkey products are created equal, and many can contain additives and preservatives that might impact health negatively.

One of the key concerns with processed meats, including turkey slices, is the presence of sodium. High sodium content is common, as salt is a primary preservative in these products. Excessive sodium intake is associated with an increased risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's advisable to compare labels and choose brands with lower sodium content when opting for processed turkey.

  • Look for reduced-sodium or no-salt-added versions to minimize health risks associated with high sodium intake.
  • Avoid brands that use fillers and by-products to ensure you're getting a purer source of turkey protein.
  • Notice the use of nitrates and nitrites, which are often added to processed meats for color and preservation. Some studies, like those indicated by the Harvard Health Publishing, have linked these compounds to an increased risk of certain cancers.
  • Check for added sugars on the ingredient list, which can be hidden in processed turkey under various names, contributing to added calories and potential metabolic issues.

Beyond additives, the method of processing can also have impacts. Mechanical slicing, for instance, may not affect nutritional content, whereas smoking or flavoring might. Smoked meats can contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been categorized as carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Processed turkey can also contain varying amounts of preservatives and artificial flavorings, whose long-term health impacts are still being studied. While some preservatives are generally regarded as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, consumer preference is increasingly shifting towards turkey slices with minimal processing and additives.

To best balance convenience with nutritional health, it's recommended to:

  • Consume processed turkey in moderation as part of a varied diet.
  • Pair it with plenty of vegetables, whole grains, and other unprocessed foods to ensure a balanced intake of nutrients.
  • Consider the role of the overall dietary pattern in mitigating the negative health risks. The occasional sandwich with processed turkey slices is less concerning within the context of an otherwise health-conscious diet.
  • Incorporate freshly cooked turkey and other proteins to reduce reliance on processed varieties.

While processed turkey slices are not inherently bad, they should be chosen carefully and consumed in moderation within a balanced diet. Paying close attention to labels and opting for products with the least amount of additives can help maintain nutritional health without fully sacrificing the convenience of processed foods.

Frequently asked questions

To offset potential cancer risks associated with processed turkey, pair it with foods that have cancer-protective properties such as fruits, vegetables (especially cruciferous ones like broccoli and kale), whole grains, and legumes. These foods provide antioxidants, fiber, and important nutrients that can support overall health and potentially reduce cancer risk.

Products labeled 'no nitrates or nitrites added' typically do not contain synthetic nitrates or nitrites, but they often use natural sources like celery juice instead, which contains nitrates. These naturally occurring nitrates can still convert to nitrites and potentially form nitrosamines. While these products may be a better choice, consumption should still be moderate.

To make processed turkey a better option for blood pressure management, opt for reduced-sodium or no-salt-added versions, and consume these products in moderation as part of a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other low-sodium foods that can counteract high sodium levels.

Organic or free-range processed turkey products often come from turkeys that are raised with higher welfare standards and without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones, potentially reducing exposure to these substances. However, organic and free-range labels do not guarantee lower levels of sodium or the absence of nitrates/nitrites. Label reading is still important for making the healthiest choice.

Ask a question about Processed Turkey Slices and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible long-term side effects

  • increased blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • osteoporosis
  • kidney strain
  • increased risk of certain cancers

Ingredients to be aware of

  • high sodium
  • synthetic nitrates or nitrites
  • phosphates
  • mechanically separated turkey
  • artificial flavorings
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (pahs)


  • convenient
  • source of protein
  • vitamins and minerals
  • low-fat options available

Healthier alternatives

  • low-sodium options
  • freshly roasted turkey
  • nitrate-free products
  • minimally processed meats
  • varied diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

Our Wellness Pick (what is this?)

Applegate Natural Turkey

  • Oven roasted flavor
  • Family-sized packaging
  • Natural ingredients
  • No artificial preservatives
  • Convenient and tasty
Learn More!

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 02-18-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Diane Saleem
Published on: 02-18-2024

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