Cured ham is delicious, but is it considered processed meat like the rest of them.
Perhaps your mind has wandered into a random search, or maybe you are looking for healthy alternatives for your family to consume on your everyday sandwich.
Ham has many variations as well, but since it’s a cured product, this site is all about all the wonderful variations in the world.
Either way, I’m here to tell you about the ins and outs of cured ham and how it is processed or made.
Is Cured Ham Considered Processed Meat? Cured ham and other meats that have been cured, smoked, dried, or otherwise prepared before are considered processed meats. Commercially processed meats differ from artisanal or homemade cures in their acidity, nitrates, and preservatives directly influencing nutritional content.
These differences can have quite an effect on the overall nutritional value of a type of meat as well as the taste and shelf life.
But, it can be a bit confusing for some people to understand how a cured ham is processed if it is not commercially made.
Does this make it unhealthy? Let’s take a closer look at how cured ham can be made and what this means for its consumption value.
Commercially Processed Meat vs. Artisanal/Homemade
Getting into the curing meat game comes in many forms.
While anyone can begin the process, it can take years to master the taste and the art of preparing delicious and beautifully seasoned meats that can be shared and enjoyed by friends and family alike.
But it’s a craft that I can say is incredibly rewarding as well.
Often, this is why many people prefer to buy their meat selection from the deli, grocery, or local butcher- convenience, a world that defines many people! (I’m quite a fan of in-convenience, it builds character I think).
But, when meat is not artisanally made or homemade by a home chef, you can otherwise purchase it from a commercial producer and generally buy it at a grocery store.
Unless your local grocery store sells locally made artisanal meat options, then you are likely looking at commercially processed meat.
There are several differences between commercially processed meat and artisanal/homemade meat.
When it comes to the curation process and what is added (or not added) to the meat to preserve it and help it to maintain long shelf life, this is where commercially processed meat and artisanal/homemade meat differ the most.
But it depends on what type of cured meat – some are cooked ie. mortadella or pastrami. While other a dry cured like prosciutto or pancetta, which is preserved, take months to make and lasts months.
When it comes to commercially processed meat, acidity is used to fast track the curation process. Unlike artisanally made or homemade meats that use a salt cure and a prolonged period to allow the meat to cure, artificial ingredients can be added to commercially processed meat.
Generally, this is to help with the production rates and the ability to sell the commercially processed meat at a higher quantity and quicker rate than what you receive with artisanally made or homemade meat.
Hello capitalism, it’s good and bad we all know that.
And, it makes sense when you think about it. The more meat a commercial producer can make, the higher their profit margin extends.
On the other hand, artisanal made meat is not generally sold at quite as high or rapid of volumes. Therefore, natural ingredients (like salt among other spices) are used to cure the meat, patience and time become very important.
This prevents the growth of harmful bacteria that would otherwise cause the meat to go bad and be inconsumable (for dry-cured meats which I make and you can learn about on this site).
So, if your cured ham is cured at home or is artisanally made from a local producer, you can expect that it will have a much lower acidity due to the lack of having to add this to fast track the process of making it readily available for store shelves.
On the other hand, if you are purchasing a cured ham that has been commercially made, then you can expect it to have a higher amount of acidity.
You know that tangy flavor in salami? That’s what Im talking about.
In both ways, the cured ham is considered to be processed, but the way in which it is processed differs.
Nitrates are another area of concern when it comes to commercially produced or artisanally made meat (including cured ham).
Due to their potentially harmful health consequences (in large quantities regularly), many seek to avoid them.
It’s the nitrates cooked at high temperatures that become harmful, a key point you need to research – bacon with nitrates – no thanks.
However, nitrates come from a few different sources.
They can be minimal in commercially made meat as well as artisanally made meat depending on the source for each.
Some cured ham commercial producers will add commercially made nitrates, well most. They also cook below 350°F – this in my eye makes it better for consumption.
In addition to this, other commercial producers of processed ham will use natural forms of nitrate like celery powder, celery juice, or beet juice that still count as nitrate but are not added in the same commercial way.
(It’s the same as non-natural).
These are often labeled with the marketing “no additives or preservatives*” with the asterisk indicating that the preservatives are natural sources.
This is just poor legislation around packaging ‘uncured’ bacon uses beetroot powder, but it’s still good sodium nitrite.
Oh, and do you know lots of vegetables are full of nitrates, and your body has bucket loads of nitrates inside it as well!.
In another area of discrepancy, shelf life is something that many meat consumers are concerned with, and rightfully so.
After all, nobody likes the idea of purchasing a beautifully seasoned, delicious-smelling piece of meat only to have it spoil in their refrigerator shortly after (or especially before they get a chance to eat any of it in the first place).
What many people do not realize, though, is that artisanally made or homemade ham should follow the same precautions as commercially processed meat. The two are cured or preserved in a way that allows for appropriate care to prolong their shelf life.
Interestingly, cured meat can often be left out at a regulated temperature (which varies based on the cure, climate, and type of meat). But ham thats cooked should be kept in a fridge temp.
What this implies for your cured ham is that if it has been commercially processed, it will likely have to be refrigerated even before opening the packaging.
This is why you will find that it is located in the refrigerated section of your local grocery store.
Of course, once the casing has been broken on any meat, the meat becomes exposed to new bacteria that can become harmful, so you will need to refrigerate it.
Either way, it is important to recognize that while commercially processed meats often use commercially produced additives and preservatives to allow for their shelf life extension, this does not mean that they will have a longer shelf life than artisanally made meats.
What this means for your cured ham is that whether it is commercially processed or artisanally made/homemade, you need to pay attention to the specific instructions for that particular ham and how it was prepared to know its unique shelf life and how to properly care for and store it.
What Kind of Meat is Not Processed?
If you are looking for some type of meat to satisfy your need for protein- or even a delicious addition to your sandwich- you might be curious about what unprocessed meats are available.
With almost all cured types of meat counting as processed, it can be a bit daunting to even find a type of meat that has not been processed.
However, there are plenty of types of cured meat that are not processed, and you can generally find these in a fresh deli. These include roasted meats like beef and pork as well as a few other types of meat that have not been prepared including turkey, deer, and bison.
Here is where the confusion is, a Parma Ham (2 ingredients salt & pork) is put in the same category as a Hot Dog (2 dozen ingredients and lots of preservatives/additives) according to these guys below:
The reason that it’s hard to find a hard and fast definition for processed meat is that there isn’t one. This term is defined a little differently by everyone. The American Institute for Cancer Research defines processed meat as “meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives.”
The World Health Organization has a slightly broader definition: “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.”
What’s the Definition of Processed Meat? – Scientific Americian
For reference, here is what your eating in a hot dog, many of these ingredients will be on your ham too!
Ascorbic acid/Sodium ascorbate – Also known as Vitamin C, helps speed up the curing reaction between sodium nitrite and the meat. Per USDA regulation it is not permitted for use with Uncured Products (No Nitrites Added except celery juice powder). This ingredient is effective and used at very small amounts. Research has shown that including Vitamin C with sodium nitrite effectively prevents the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines in fried bacon.
Autolyzed Yeast Extract – Flavor enhancer derived from yeast and used to add a savory meaty flavor.
Beef – Most commonly pieces of meat cut away from steaks or roasts. It is then very finely ground and mixed with other spices. Variety meats or organ meats are not typically used in hot dogs or sausages and if organs are used, the specific organ will be included in the ingredients statement on the package and the front of the package will declare “with variety meats” or “with meat byproducts.”
Beef Stock – Key ingredient in soup, most commonly made by cooking beef bones in water. May be added to achieve a “meatier” flavor.
Celery powder – Dried, ground concentrate prepared from fresh celery, which is naturally rich in nitrate. Celery powder can be a curing ingredient in place of sodium nitrite. It is commonly found in “uncured” or organic products. It can also be added as a spice. Cultured Celery powder has nitrite. Cultured celery powder has the same effects and benefits as sodium nitrite regarding: 1) anti-oxidant which inhibits rancidity development; gives cured meats their characteristic pink color and their unique cured taste; and 3) inhibits many dangerous bacteria helping make the hot dogs much safer.
Cherry Powder – Finely ground powder extracted from cherries. In hot dogs it may be used to assist with color development and stability and as a source of Vitamin C, which helps speed up the curing process.
Citric acid – A naturally occurring acid in citrus fruits and tomatoes commonly used to control the acidity of products.
Collagen casing – An edible casing alternative to hog or sheep intestines. Made from beef proteins.
Dextrose – A sugar found naturally in fruits and honey, which can also be derived from starch (this might be labeled as “cultured dextrose”). It enhances flavor and browning during cooking.
Flavoring – Flavors to add a depth of taste. These are typically concentrated extracts derived from herbs, spices and vegetables.
Garlic puree – Pureed cloves of garlic.
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein – A flavor enhancer produced by boiling and breaking down cereals or legumes, such as soy, corn, or wheat, in hydrochloric acid into their component amino acids.
Lactate/diacetate – Salts (sodium or potassium) derived from organic acids that inhibit growth of bacteria and enhance safety. Lactate is made in our bodies as part of normal metabolism. As an ingredient, it is manufactured from corn by fermentation. Diacetate is a form of vinegar which is also manufactured by fermentation.
Lauric arginate – Prevents bacterial growth. It is a derivative of lauric acid which is commonly found in coconut and palm kernel oils, the amino acid L-arginine and ethanol.
Maltodextrin – A carbohydrate used to create even and consistent flavor. Maltodextrin evenly spreads flavors through a product so every mouthful tastes good. Most commonly made from corn. Brewers also use it in beer.
Mechanically separated chicken/turkey – Chicken or turkey removed from the bones with specialized machines that use pressure to separate the meat. Since mechanically separated chicken or turkey is derived from poultry meat that is close to the bone, it can have slightly higher calcium content when compared to whole muscles. Because of this, USDA requires that it be included in the ingredients as “mechanically separated” when used.
Modified food starch – A starch that has been modified so that it is a functional ingredient. Modified food starch is used as a thickener to give a consistent texture similar to how you might use corn starch at home. Most commonly made from corn, but also can be made from wheat or potatoes.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) – A flavor enhancer comprised simply of sodium and the amino acid glutamate, primarily made through fermentation of corn. Helpful as a way to reduce sodium in products as MSG contains only one-third the amount of sodium as table salt. Glutamate and MSG provide the savory “umami” flavor common in meats, ripe tomatoes and parmesan cheese (both of which contain naturally occurring MSG.) It must be declared as MSG on meat and poultry labels
Natural Sheep Casing – Casing made from the cleaned intestines of a lamb.
Oleoresin of Paprika – Technical name for paprika extract which is a natural food ingredient extracted from red peppers. Provides both flavor and natural red coloring.
Phosphates – A naturally occurring form of the element phosphorus used in meat and poultry products for maintaining moisture in products to enhance juiciness and tenderness and prevent off flavors from developing in fat. Sodium or potassium phosphates most common in hot dogs.
Pork – Most commonly pieces of meat cut away from larger cuts like chops or tenderloin. It is then very finely ground and mixed with other spices. “Variety meats” or organ meats are not typically used in hot dogs or sausages and if organs are used, the specific organ will be included in the ingredients statement on the package and the front of the package will declare “with variety meats” or “with meat byproducts.”
Salt – Mined from the earth or obtained from sea water, salt is an essential ingredient in processed and cured meat products that adds flavor, texture, protects against bacteria and extends shelf life. Before refrigeration, salting of meat (done at very high concentrations) was essential in preventing spoilage.
Smoke flavoring – A condensed form of smoke made by capturing and condensing smoke particles from burning woods, such as maple and hickory. Smoke flavoring is an alternative to smoking via the burning of wood during the cooking process. Smoke flavoring gives products a smoky taste without a grill.
Sodium erythorbate – Having almost the exact chemical composition as Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), erythorbate provides exactly the same function as ascorbic acid. See Ascorbic acid above. Just as with ascorbic acid or sodium ascorbate, using sodium erythorbate with sodium nitrite effectively prevents the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines in fried bacon. In contrast to a popular urban legend, erythorbate is NOT made from earthworms, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports receiving many inquiries about erythorbate’s source. It is speculated that the similarity in the spelling of the words “erythorbate” and “earthworms” has led to this confusion.
Sodium nitrite – A ingredient responsible for curing, sodium nitrite is 1)anti-oxidant which keeps hot dogs from quickly going rancid; 2) gives cured meats their characteristic pink color and their unique cured taste; and 3) inhibits many dangerous bacteria helping make the hot dogs much safer. While the closely related “sodium nitrate” was commonly used in the decades past, today, nitrite is used almost exclusively to cure meats. Nitrite used in cured meats is extremely effective in preventing the deadly disease botulism. Interestingly, although consumers commonly think cured meats are the major source of nitrite in the diet, in reality, 93 percent of daily nitrite intake comes from vegetables and from saliva. Sodium nitrite is part of the normal nitrogen cycle in humans and the body actually produces and recirculates nitrate, which is converted to nitrite in our saliva. Scientists now think that humans may make nitrite as part of its bodily defenses. In some cases, processed products labeled “uncured” contain celery juice or other ingredients high in naturally occurring nitrite as a substitute for sodium nitrite made through a purification process.
Sorbitol – A sugar substitute naturally found in fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, and prunes and can also be made from corn syrup
Soy protein concentrate – Made from soybean flour after the sugar portion has been removed. Can be used to enhance texture and even make low-fat hot dogs.
Spices – A variety of plant-derived spices are commonly added to processed meat products. The most common spices used include red, white and black pepper, garlic, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, paprika and allspice.
Sugar and corn syrup – Sweeteners that add flavor and promote browning.
Water – Water (or sometimes ice) is mixed in with the meat and spices to help blending. USDA regulations control how much water can be added to hot dogs.
Thanks for dropping by, I’ve been passionate about meat curing for around 20 years now. Having been lucky enough to learn inside fine dining kitchens through to backyard smoking sessions. From doing courses, trial & error and reading extensively – finally, I thought it was time to share my passion online.
My insatiable appetite and passion toward classic Italian dry-cured salumi and all forms of curing and smoking are what drives this website engine. All the best, Tom