Cold cuts and health

Essential part of the Italian food tradition, cold cuts are meat based products, precious on a quality level, that during their preparation undergo some treatments aimed at improving their organoleptic properties and at extending their preservation.

Originally prepared by peasants during the winter months to preserve fresh meats by means of salt, aromas, spices and sometimes smoke, the cold cuts enrich our diet with the great variety of their composition and tastes. However, just like other foods deriving from animals, they may be penalised from a health standpoint, although nowadays it is shared opinion that this kind of foods does not present contraindications provided that their consumption occurs within a balanced diet combined with an active lifestyle.

The meat preservation to prevent its deterioration was a necessity that human beings understood since the very moment they understood that removing water reduces the microbes attacks and ensures the conservation of the nutritional benefits. The first conservation procedures included sun or heat exposure, while the salt treatments, that origin in Egypt, are still used. In the cold production, salt plays in fact different roles: it removes water, which helps the microorganisms proliferation, it regulates the fermentation processes of the meat working on specific enzymes and, together with temperature and moisture, it allows the fermentation of the right bacteria.

Today, cold cuts are not only requested to taste good and flavoured, but also to be made of top quality raw materials, guaranteed by the control of the animals, according to accurate and standard procedures, and to strict hygienic rules.

Besides, the growing attention towards the impact of food on our health, both from a toxicological and a nutritional point of view, has led to significant modifications on the cold cut composition in the last years.

For sure, one the most relevant aspects is the reduction of fats, which is variable in each cold cut ranging from 10% to 60%, and particularly high in ham and bacon. This change involves a lower energy supply, namely the reduction of the calorie degree associated to these products. Even from a qualitative point of view, the lipid constituent has been altered thanks to the care towards the livestock, the animals feed and the productive processes. Less deposit fats and more muscle mass are the key features of the animals that grow up in spacious breeding farms, and in this way the pork meats contain less saturated fats and more unsaturated and monounsaturated ones, like the oleic acid (contained in olive oil), polyunsaturated, like essential fatty acids linoleic and alpha-linoleic (contained in great quantity in vegetable oils such as corn and rapeseed), and also small quantities of very important fats like the long chain omega 3 EPA and DHA, fundamental for our growth and health.

At the same time the water quantity has increased, and in some typologies of cold cuts, even proteins. This aspect is particularly important from a nutritional point of view, as proteins, which should represent the 15% of the overall diet calories, are fundamental to build and nourish the body. Animal proteins have a higher biological level, which means a composition of amino acids very similar to that of the proteins synthesised by human beings. Recent studies are reconsidering the role of the proteins, as they are important not only during the growing phase and in specific situations (such as pregnancy, old people etc.) but also for the correct regulation of many metabolic processes related to appetite and weight control.

Cold cuts represent also a valid source of minerals, indispensable for the growth and the preservation of a good state of health: iron, involved in many vital functions, and particularly available in the meat, and ready to be absorbed and used by the body, as well as zinc, selenium, chrome and copper. They also deliver relevant quantities of vitamins: 100 grams of raw ham can provide more than 35% of the daily recommended dose of thiamine (or vitamin B1), 8% of riboflavin (or vitamin B2) and 18% of the requirements of vitamin PP (or niacin), besides the vitamin B12.

Moreover, cold cuts are nowadays on the average more digestible, partly because of the fats reduction but most of all thanks to the two different processes, the enzymatic lysis and the microbe fermentation, that are responsible of the specific flavours and scents, and that help reducing the digestion time.

The lactose intolerance causes instead an inability of the stomach to easily metabolize lactose (the main sugar contained in the milk) due to a lack of the enzyme that splits this molecule into simple sugars (glucose and galactose), making it ready to be absorbed. The non-digested lactose is then fermented by the intestinal bacterial flora with resulting meteorism and motility disturbs.

Finally, cold cuts, very much appreciated for their taste, variety and simplicity in preparation and use, belong to our food tradition. The reduced quantity of fats, the high protein value and the digestibility make them more and more a nourishment whose consumption is recommended at all ages, as part of a balanced lifestyle that includes a proper diet from an energy point of view at the lifestyle (that must be active as much as possible) and balanced with regard to the contribution of macro and micro nutriments.

By Dott.ssa Franca Marangoni of Nutrition Foundation of Italy