Clean Meat vs. Mystery Meat

Posted by Karla Guffey, MS, RD, LD, CDE, BC-ADM, CLS on Dec 15, 2017 10:24:00 AM

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Not all meats are created equal, and often we choose to avoid answering questions like; “What exactly is in those chicken nuggets I had for lunch?” The problem in not answering these types of questions is that these so called “mystery meats” have multiple ingredients that have been linked to chronic diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers.  It’s time to have those often unasked questions answered, and learn tools to make healthy swaps from “mystery” to “clean” meats.


Identifying Mystery Meat

“Mystery meat” is a general term used for processed meat products.  This includes products such as:

  • Packaged lunch meat, deli meat, bologna
  • Salami, hot dogs, pepperoni and sausages
  • Bacon (including turkey bacon)
  • Canned meat
  • Dried, cured and salted meats
  • Frozen chicken nuggets, strips, fish sticks, hamburgers, corn dogs
  • Packaged dinners
  • Pre-packaged and pre-cooked meats
  • Meat alternatives: processed soy alternatives from genetically modified ingredients etc.

These so called mystery meats have multiple ingredients that have been linked to chronic diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers.  The most common ingredients are nitrites, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). 

Sodium nitrite is added to processed meats to enhance the flavor, preserve the color and limit harmful bacteria from growing.  Smoked meats can contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are formed with any burning or charring.  Heterocyclic amines are formed when meat is fried or grilled at high temperature and are also contained in processed meats.  In addition, high amounts of sodium are added to these mystery meats as a preservative.

Consuming high amounts of processed foods is linked to heart disease, certain types of cancer (ones involved with the gastrointestinal tract), high blood pressure and even lung diseases.  Most national guidelines from American Heart Association and American Cancer Institute advise against consumption of processed meats.  In addition, the Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) leaves out all processed meats from its Core Nutrition Plan.


Making Clean Meat Swaps

“Clean” meats are ones that are unprocessed.  Choosing these types of meats instead of the choices listed above, can help you limit your exposure to those hazardous chemicals.

  • Consume deli meats, hot dogs, sausage and bacon in moderation and choose the nitrate free and no added preservatives version of these foods. (e.: Applegate Farms®  or other organic brands).
  • Bake or grill poultry (chicken or turkey) and slice thin to use as alternative to deli meats.
  • Make your own “Lunchables®” with preservative free lunch meat, unprocessed cheeses and whole grain crackers.
  • Instead of frozen nuggets and strips, consider baking your own chicken breast strips/bites and then freezing.
  • Choose soy products and meat alternatives that come from non-genetically modified ingredients and have no added preservatives.

Next time you find yourself grabbing a mystery meat product off the shelf of a grocery store, consider ways you can make a swap to a clean meat alternative instead.

In good health,


* This listing of any meat products in this blog is for informational purposes only. Boston Heart does not endorse or promote the products listed.  



Topics: Health and Wellness