Should I Rinse Cold Cuts?

Have you heard advice that you should rinse cold cuts before you eat them? One of our readers wanted to know whether she should rinse deli-style meat to wash away salt. We reached out to Dr. Casey Owens-Hanning, Associate Professor in the Department of Food Science and member of the Center of Excellence for Poultry Science, University of Arkansas, and Dr. Ruth MacDonald, RD, Chair and Professor of the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition, Iowa State University.

What is cured meat?

Dr. Owens-Hanning: “If the product is cured, it will have sodium nitrite added. If the product is not cured, it will not have any added nitrites. If the consumer does not want to purchase meat with sodium nitrites, there are several options available that are not cured (e.g., oven roasted turkey or chicken).”

Is there salt in deli-style meat?

Dr. Owens-Hanning:  “Yes. Salt helps with moisture retention (water holding capacity) and of course, flavor. Salt is important in products that include multiple pieces that have to bind together. Deli loaves are often whole muscle products, but they have two to three (or more) whole pieces of muscle that have to bind together to make one loaf or roll.”

Why is salt added?

Dr. Owens-Hanning: “Salt (a form of sodium chloride) is necessary for producing deli-style meat (formed products, or any further processed formed meat product). This is because the proteins must be extracted for good binding. Proteins are salt-soluble, so in the presence of salt, they will become more functional and have the ability to interact with water and other proteins on adjacent pieces of meat.

“Salt is also needed in hot dogs, nuggets, sausages, etc., because binding is required between meat pieces. In these products, the piece size is much smaller. On the other hand, bacon is whole muscle and doesn’t really require binding, but salt is in there for flavor. It is also a cured product so salt and sodium nitrite are used in that process.  Curing is a method of food preservation.”

Should I wash deli-style meat before eating it? 

Dr. Owens-Hanning: “It is not necessary to wash deli meat slices.”

Dr. Ruth MacDonald: “The question about rinsing is complicated – if the meat is canned or packaged with a solution, then rinsing might reduce sodium a small amount, but probably will not have a significant effect on total sodium since the sodium is used in the processing and will be dissolved in the meat. There is no need to rinse sliced deli meat.”

What is a safe level of sodium? 

Dr. MacDonald:  “The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium to less than 2,300 mg a day, but there are stricter limits for some people. If you’re age 51 or older, are African American, or if you have high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease, you should limit your sodium intake to 1500 mg daily.”

What if I am trying to reduce sodium in my diet?

Dr. Owens-Hanning: “Sodium content is labeled in food products. I would strongly encourage the consumer to read the labels and make choices based on that. If they do not want that much sodium, it may be wise for them to choose a different type of protein product or a low-sodium product. However, finding a low-sodium further processed product is more difficult due to the protein functionality issue mentioned earlier, though low sodium products are available.”

Salt is added to meats as an essential part of preserving and processing meats. Look for low-sodium options to reduce sodium, but it is usually not necessary to rinse cold cuts or deli meats.

This article was originally published Aug. 17, 2013.