Experts Revealed What Salami Is Made Of – And Now You May Never Eat It Again

Is there anything better than taking a picnic on a sunny day? You could bring all sorts of food along with you, but it’d be hard to beat a selection of cheeses, olives, fresh bread and – of course – some delicious salami. After all, this latter mouth-watering treat isn’t just great on top of a pizza. But could something that tastes so good be bad for you?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. As a fermented product, salami is chock-full of bacteria that help to boost gut health. It also provides a ton of minerals, nutrients and vitamins. But two of the most important components of salami are sodium and fat – and it’s saturated fat, which is the worst kind.

Disturbingly, salt and fat aren’t the worst things in salami. Even the versions of the sausage that claim not to be “cured” still contain potentially harmful chemicals, albeit naturally sourced versions. On top of that, salami doesn’t necessarily compensate for the bad that it can do. After all, it’s not exactly a plate of salad.

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When you hear “salami,” you may think of the sliced produce you can pick up at your local store. But there’s a lot more to it than that. The word “salami” simply denotes cured meat in a case – and that doesn’t narrow things down much. Lots of different products can be called “salami,” but they have different consistencies and various spice mixes.

Curing meat usually means that you add salt to it, drying it out and making it last longer. Sometimes, you’ll also cook or smoke the meat – although it isn’t usually cooked – and then introduce sugar, spices, and nitrites or nitrates. These latter terms denote compounds that are made up of oxygen and nitrogen. They’re used to stop harmful microbes from growing. Meat treated with nitrites or nitrates will turn red or pink.

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Although there are different methods for curing meat, the process used for salami is possibly older than any other. It’s thought to predate the Roman Empire, at least. In the salami method, meat is permitted to ferment for a long time and then dry out. This creates a type of sausage that doesn’t necessarily have to be heated up in order to be eaten. And unlike in other cures, the salt is mixed in, as opposed to being put on the outer layer.

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Salt is perhaps the most important ingredient in salami. Indeed, even the word “salami” itself reflects this, with the Latin term “sal” translating as “salt.” Basically, salt must account for more than 2 percent of salami’s weight if you want the meat to be properly cured. If you add a lot more than that, though, then it’ll be too salty. It’s quite a delicate balancing act.

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Making good salami isn’t a simple matter of throwing salt into some minced pork. In reality, it takes time. Once mixed, the salami will need to be stored in a space where temperature and humidity are controlled carefully, sometimes for months. It’s worth it, though, as lengthy curing brings a great taste to the sausage.

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Salami comes in many forms. Cacciatora is one example, a variety that takes its name from an Italian phrase meaning “hunter style.” This is a reference to its size, which is small enough to allow hunters to take it along with them. The portable sausage is no more than eight inches long, with a weight of under 12 ounces. Its flavor is increased by a bunch of spices and herbs.

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Other forms of salami are made both in Italy and in places where Italians have emigrated to in the past. Back in the old country, though, different regions have their own types. These can vary from Parma’s Felino – which has a bigger end and a smaller one – to Finnochiona, which is flavored with fennel seeds to give it a spicy tang.

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Lovers of pepperoni might see a likeness in Napoletano, which unsurprisingly is from Naples. It’s also small, red, and uses peperoncino as a spice. But it doesn’t contain beef, unlike pepperoni. Soppressata, meanwhile, stays soft because it isn’t aged for long – but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t tasty. No, spices, pepper, and wine – yes, wine – are added to make sure it’s delicious.

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These are just a few of the varieties, but there are many more. And the method isn’t restricted to Italy, of course. Chorizo is a pork sausage very similar to Italian salami, although this Spanish variety is usually smoked. The Germans and French make dry sausages that are similar, while the Danes enjoy Spegepølse.

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Despite the huge variety, the bottom line for salami is that it contains meat, pork fat of decent quality, salt, and all sorts of things to give it flavor. As we’ve seen, these flavors can range from spices, peppers, herbs, garlic and even wine. There are no rules on what can be used.

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Salami doesn’t have to be heated up, although “salame cotto” – which originates from Piemonte in the north of Italy – is usually cooked or smoked. This can occur either side of the curing process. There’s no health reason behind cooking it, however. It’s just a way that manufacturers can bring different flavors to the meat.

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Mind you, it’s not that uncooked salami is raw. No, it actually goes through a process that’s quite like making vintage cheese. To begin with, the ingredients are brought together, milled, and then stuffed into a casing. Sometimes, at the point of mixing, the sausage maker will throw in a “starter” for the fermentation process.

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Spoilage in food is all about bacteria: allow the wrong kind in and the food will go off. But the best way to fight bad bacteria is a healthy dose of the right kind. This is what the process of fermentation is all about. The good bacteria make lactic acid, which creates an environment unsuitable for the bacteria you don’t want.

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The process of fermentation – or slow acidification – runs for around 35 hours. The lactic acid content will rise in the meat, and you can tell if the fermentation is done by checking how much acid there is. During the process, acid isn’t the only thing that increases, as there’s also a boost to flavor.

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That flavor actually comes from the good bacteria. And not only does the salami become tasty in the fermentation process, it also changes texture and becomes nice and chewy as the acid spreads. In the meantime, the salt in the sausage mixture starts to draw out water, which brings us to the next stage of drying.

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Drying is where the casing – which you don’t normally eat – becomes important. As the salami hangs, aging, it dries out a lot. If it was just left on a counter, all its water would evaporate and you’d be left with something as tough as overcooked steak. But the casing restricts the loss to about 50 percent of the water it began with.

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After a day or two of fermenting, the salami is left in storage for a long time, be it weeks or sometimes months. Regardless, you have to take care to make sure the conditions are perfect. With the salami drying out, you want the right humidity and you also want the temperature low enough not to encourage bad bacteria.

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When the process is finished, you’ll have a delicious long sausage. You could simply gnaw on it, but most salami types are quite long and thick. Opinions vary on whether you should cut the salami very fine or thick. Possibly, the decision comes down to the dryness of the sausage.

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But you don’t have to just eat salami by the slice, as it’s incredibly versatile. It can be a feature of a range of cured meats on a platter, served with or without cheeses and fruits. Or you can chop it up in pasta, or with rice or veggies. It also makes a great addition to salads and omelets, and it’s of course the centerpiece of many a fine sandwich.

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Generally speaking, a serving of salami amounts to three slices measuring a 16th of an inch each. And though you wouldn’t get much of a sandwich out of that, it will give you about 120 calories. On top of that, it provides up to 15 percent of the day’s needed protein.

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That serving also provides you with up to 15 percent of the selenium you need. That’s valuable because this mineral is an antioxidant that helps defend your cells from free radicals. Salami also gives you a decent dose of B vitamins, which are essential to human health. If you lack B-12, for example, then you’re at more risk of a stroke or dementia as you age.

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But the news isn’t all good for your health, as salami contains a lot of fat. In fact, those three slices of the stuff provide almost a fifth of the saturated fat you’re advised to eat in a day. And saturated fat is the type that’s been linked to high levels of LDL cholesterol, which itself brings a higher risk of heart disease.

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Also on the bad side of the ledger is sodium. Given how much salt there is in salami, it’s no surprise that it contains a great deal of sodium. Although you need sodium to maintain your body’s fluid balance, you don’t need too much. Around 2,300 milligrams is recommended as a daily maximum.

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So, the suspicion is that salami isn’t too healthy for you. This is supported by a study that looked into how cured meats have affected people in countries across Europe. Basically, the results suggested that eating just one rasher of bacon a day was enough to increase your risk of stroke, heart attack and cancer.

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University of Zurich epidemiology professor Sabine Rohrmann led the study, which analyzed its subjects across the 1990s and 2000s. Despite her expertise, Rohrmann wasn’t certain what made cured meats so dangerous. As she speculated to NPR in 2013, however, it might be that the nitrate, smoke and salt used in the curing process increases cancer risk.

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A couple of years later, the International Agency for Research on Cancer – which is part of the World Health Organization – declared that it’d come to a stunning conclusion. It said that eating processed meat was “carcinogenic to humans.” In fact, it was in Group 1 of those things considered high risk for cancer.

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The IARC had looked at more than 800 different studies to come to its conclusion. The scientists – 22 of them from ten different nations – explained that there was a link between eating processed meat and cancer of the stomach. Red meat that hadn’t been cured, meanwhile, was only “probably carcinogenic.”

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What happens is that added nitrates or nitrites during the curing process can cause chemicals to be formed that might cause cancer. The same is true when meat is smoked. In any case, these problematic chemicals include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and N-nitroso-compounds (NOCs). On top of that, meat has heme iron in it, which can boost NOCs.

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The classification in Group 1 is serious: you’ll find smoking and asbestos at the same level. So, is eating a couple slices of salami as harmful as a pack of 20? Well, no. Smoking brings about 20 times the risk of cured meat. It turns out that Group 1 covers a range of dangers, and processed meat is nowhere near the worst.

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The Global Disease Project 2012 has estimated that about a million people a year pass away because of smoking. As for processed meat consumption, though, the figure sits at a bit more than 34,000 people. One analysis found that roughly every 1.8 ounces of daily processed meat servings boosts your risk of cancer by 18 percent.

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When asked by Australian state broadcaster ABC what caused the increase in cancer risk, the chair of the IARC couldn’t say. Professor Bernard Stewart said, “So far as we know, it is not so much an agent that is used in the processing, it is the very nature of the meat giving rise to chemicals in the cause of digestion.”

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Observations such as this aren’t novel, however, as some have been noted in the past. Stewart continued, “Since this worry had been raised decades ago, the levels of particular chemicals in processed meat, like sodium nitrite, have been systematically reduced.” So, is the answer to make sure you buy “nitrate-free” meat if you want to avoid harming your health?

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Well, that might not help. Even if meat is labeled as “nitrate free,” it may actually include nitrates. That’s because celery juice can be used to preserve meat – and celery has lots of nitrate in it. In any case, smoked meats can contain other bad chemicals, and research on the subject is still a little limited.

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Professor Stewart doesn’t think you need to give up salami completely – just eat a bit less. He said, “For those who are eating these foods on a very regular basis, let’s say more than five days a week, possibly every day, it is those people who will probably be the focus of dietary guidelines suggesting that they replace some of that red and processed meat by a higher intake of poultry, fish, and possibly even, dare I say it, a vegetarian meal every now and then.”

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Epidemiologist at Cancer Research UK Tim Key concurred. He remarked, “This decision doesn’t mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it, you may want to think about cutting down.” Luckily, there are ways to do that without losing out on the salami experience.

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Yes, you can try varieties of beef and pork salami that are low on sodium. Or if you want to cut red meat out altogether, you can. You could give turkey salami a try. One serving will provide 48 calories – which is fewer than the red meat version – and under a gram of saturated fat. It’s lower in sodium, too.

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And when it comes down to it, you don’t need to give up salami altogether. As a “sometimes food,” it’s fine. Remember, though, that it will be much better to eat a bit of salami with a melon ball than to scoff it piled up in an Italian sandwich. But if you really want to be healthy, why not try a portobello mushroom?

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