- All of the 46 varieties of packaged ham we tested contained extra water, added during the curing process; with a third of them the extra water amounted to 20% or more of the product.
- Packaged ham often contains a cocktail of chemicals, some of them specifically added to retain extra water.
- 'Real' sliced ham off the bone bought loose from the supermarket’s deli counter can be cheaper than packaged ham.
No one expects pre-packaged and pre-sliced ham to be a gourmet’s delight, but it’s convenient for making sandwiches or a pizza topping. You might be surprised, though, at just how much added water these products can contain instead of the meat you think you’re paying for.
Please note: this information was current as of September 2008 but is still a useful guide today.
Traditionally, ham was a way of salting pork to preserve the meat for winter. Some ham is still ‘dry cured’ in much the same way.
- The meat is rubbed with a mixture of salt and a variety of other ingredients, usually including sodium nitrite.
- It’s then hung to dry and mature for several months. During this time enzymes in the meat break down some of the muscle protein, producing the special flavours and the texture of traditional hams such as English York ham or Italian prosciutto.
Pumped up for profit
Most supermarket packaged ham is ‘wet cured’ in an industrial process that takes only a few days.
- The meat is injected with a solution of salt, sugar and other chemicals.
- It's then massaged in special machines to spread the chemicals evenly through the meat.
- It’s then cooked, chilled, sliced and packaged.
Cheaper hams (and most packaged hams come into this category) aren’t cut from whole joints of meat but are made from small pieces of meat that are pressed together before cooking. This gives the meat a more even colour and fat distribution.
Most packaged hams have plenty of additives listed on the label and some of these are there specifically to make the meat hold extra water:
- Phosphates (450, 451, 452) All the hams in our test contain phosphates. They’re added to increase the water-binding capacity of the muscle fibres. Phosphates also make the ham juicier and more tender, and when it’s made from small pieces of pork they help to glue them together. There’s no real risk to your health from phosphates. Excessive consumption may contribute to osteoporosis but only a small fraction of the phosphates in our diet comes from additives.
- Maltodextrin This is a thickening agent made from starch. It helps to retain extra water in the meat and was added to nearly half the hams we tested. It’s used in many processed foods (it counts as ‘dietary fibre’) and appears to be safe. Other thickening agents we found in a few hams were:
- Guar gum (412; of plant origin),
- Xanthan gum (415; made by bacteria)
- Carrageenan (407; from seaweed).
These additives are used in many processed foods and are thought to be safe in the small amounts used.
- Sodium nitrite (250) All the packaged hams in our test contain this chemical. It’s added as a preservative — it helps to prevent the growth of the bacteria that cause botulism — and it’s also what makes ham pink and improves the flavour. But nitrites can cause the formation of potent cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. Studies consistently find that consumption of meat, particularly processed meat, is associated with a modest increase in the risk of colorectal cancer (and probably stomach cancer as well). A recent report from the World Cancer Research Fund recommended that we avoid processed meat for this reason. However, meat processors argue that the risk of developing cancer is much less than the risk to your health from harmful bacteria if the nitrite wasn’t added. Organic ham is made without sodium nitrite, so it’s clearly not essential and you can avoid it if you’re prepared to pay extra for organic ham.
- Sodium erythorbate (316) Almost all the packaged hams contain this additive. It’s added as a curing accelerator and as an antioxidant (it helps to prevent loss of colour and flavour), and it helps stop the formation of nitrosamines. It’s believed to be harmless (it’s first cousin to vitamin C, but lacks any vitamin activity).
Packaged ham contains salt and sodium nitrite as preservatives, but unlike traditional dry-cured ham it also contains plenty of water. This creates a moist environment in which dangerous bacteria can multiply unless the ham is kept at temperatures below 4°C.
When CHOICE tested sliced and shaved ham in 2001 we found some very high levels of bacteria (though fortunately not the more dangerous ones). So store ham in the fridge and don’t keep it for more than a few days. And if it’s slimy toss it out, because that means it has bacteria multiplying on its surface.
What's in a name?
'Champagne', 'English', 'Danish', 'Virginian', 'Monaco'… Do these names on the label mean anything? Very little, it seems.
They represent different styles of ham but there are no standard definitions and the names often mean whatever the manufacturer wants them to mean.
- Certainly there's no champagne in 'champagne ham'.
- 'English ham' hasn’t been imported from England.
- The manufacturer of HANS Monaco ham told us that name signifies a premium product, and that 'Virginian' generally means the ham has been pressed into a flat shape. (In the US, though, a 'Virginia ham' must have been produced in the state of Virginia.)
What does free range mean?
Another claim on the label that means less than you might think is 'bred free range'. It doesn’t mean that the meat came from free-range pigs (as opposed to pigs reared intensively, penned in sheds or in eco-shelters). 'Bred free range' piglets are born outdoors, to mothers that live in the open, but once weaned (at about three weeks) they’re moved into sheds or shelters and reared in the same way as intensively farmed pigs. But at least the mothers are spared confinement in farrowing crates which many people believe to be the most inhumane aspect of intensive pig farming. (For more on this go to Free-range meat.)
Labels that can be believed
When the label says 'honey cured' or 'honey ham', though, there really must be some honey in the cure solution (although not necessarily very much). And 'smoked' ham really has been smoked (it’s done at the cooking stage) — even if the effect is artificially boosted with 'smoke flavour'.
Where does the meat come from?
You might think ham is always meat from one of the rear quarters of a pig — the Macquarie Dictionary does, and so does the international food standard, the Codex Alimentarius. But the meat in packaged ham can come from all sorts of parts of a pig’s anatomy.
Pigs, it seems, really can fly (or at least travel by ship). If you look at the fine print on the label you’ll see that most brands of packaged ham are “Made in Australia from local and imported ingredients”.
This means the ham has been processed in Australia but is likely to contain at least some imported pork. According to Australian Pork Ltd, at least 70% of our pork for making ham (and bacon) now comes from the other side of the world, mostly from Canada and the US. And we know that transporting food over long distances contributes to global warming.
CHOICE would like to see all produce clearly identified with the country of origin — then consumers could make an informed choice.