Whenever I enter a conventional grocery store, I get heart palpitations. You might think I am kidding about this, but I am not. My body gets heated, my face starts to scowl and I end up saying “WTF” about 18 times before I leave the store. You’d think by now, I would have my emotions under control – but I don’t and I think that’s why I am so passionate about fixing this food system. And I know you are too because you keep emailing, commenting and alerting me of all the messed up things you are seeing out there and I can’t thank you enough!
This investigation is one that you have been asking for, so here it is… And if you are new to Food Babe, you definitely want to read this before you ever go to the deli counter again.
You asked: Is Boar’s Head deli meat better than the other brands?
I’ve received emails and comments on social media expressing that you’ve been led to believe that Boar’s Head deli meat is healthier than other brands – but you wanted to know if it really is better or if they’ve just got really good marketing.
Their slogan – “Compromise Elsewhere” – sure makes it sound like they don’t add cheap additives to their deli meats, but is that really true? One of your emails said:
“I would love to eat Boar’s Head deli meats and cheeses as they are gluten-free and I have Celiac Disease and they seemed to be the leading company in the gluten-free deli meats. I called the company directly for ingredient lists on some of my favorite deli meats and discovered there is caramel coloring (which I know is not good) in a lot of their offerings. Could Food Babe investigate further and start a campaign to get them to take out the offending ingredients?”
Another reader sent me this photo of a big sign they saw at Publix grocery store:
Reading between the lines, this is what this sign says to me…
- “No Fillers”: This means their meats don’t contain carrageenan, soy concentrate, cellulose, starches, and other cheap substances that can hold processed meat together and reduce costs for food manufacturers.
- “No By-Products”: These are parts of the animal that we don’t typically eat, like lips, tripe, pork stomachs, and hearts. Even mainstream deli meat brands like Oscar Mayer (confirmed on the phone) and Sara Lee (via their website) claim to have deli meats that are free of by-products, so this doesn’t really set Boar’s Head apart as superior to those brands.
- “No Artificial Colors”: Here they are only referring to FD&C certified colors, as these are the only ones considered “artificial” by the FDA: Blue #1, Blue #2, Green #3, Red #3, Red #40, Yellow #5, and Yellow #6. I haven’t been able to find a single deli meat that contains any certified artificial colors, so this claim really doesn’t mean anything and is misleading because caramel color is still used.
- “No Artificial Flavors”: Another trick to make you believe their meat only contains quality ingredients, when in reality “natural” flavors can still be used. Natural flavors are not much different than the artificial variety and are made in a lab.
- “No Trans Fat”: Their meats don’t contain partially hydrogenated oils. Again, this isn’t a normal ingredient in deli meat… I’ve never seen it!
- “No Gluten”: Most deli meats are already gluten-free, so this isn’t a big shocker. But there are some deli meats that do contain gluten or may be cross-contaminated with gluten, and Boar’s Head’s claims their meats are free of gluten and thereby safe for people with celiacs.
As you can see, marketing messages like these on signs, ads, and on the front of a package tell you very little about a product. This is why I say to stop paying attention to these tactics and to always read the ingredients instead!
The biggest red flag that something was up at Boar’s Head was when I tried to find their ingredients on their website and they weren’t listed.
If Boar’s Head is so proud of the quality of their products, why don’t they publish what’s in them? How are we supposed to “trust” them if they aren’t being transparent? Even their fiercest deli meat competitor, Dietz & Watson, lists their ingredients online. Besides bugging the busy deli counter worker, there really should be an easier way to get their ingredients, and publishing them online is the best way to make them accessible to consumers.
My team called Boar’s Head to see if they would email over a list of their deli meat ingredients – and had no luck. The customer service rep told us that she wasn’t able to email us a list. She was only able to read off the ingredients over the phone for specific products, but wouldn’t send them to me via email (even for just one product). They won’t send them to us in writing? Again… red flag! I really began to wonder what Boar’s Head is trying to hide.
Given our experience with customer service, I reached out directly to the President of Boar’s Head – Mike Martella to discuss this as well, but have not heard back yet. But, after obtaining some ingredients directly from Boar’s Head over the phone and from Publix grocery stores (one of their biggest retailers), it turns out that Boar’s Head is adding some pretty controversial additives to their deli meats.
This is what I think the Boar’s Head sign should really say…
“Don’t Trust Boar’s Head!”
“Artificially Browned with Carcinogenic Caramel Color!”
Boar’s Head artificially browns some varieties of deli meat with class III and class IV caramel coloring, which is linked to cancer (this is the same color that we successfully campaigned to get removed from Starbucks drinks!) Caramel coloring is in a dozen of their meats, including the Rotisserie Seasoned Roasted Chicken Breast, EverRoast Turkey, Seasoned Filet Roast Beef, and Maple Honey Ham.
“Made With GMOs?!?!?!”
Update 1/11: Called Boar’s Head again, and they said their meat is not non-GMO.
We asked Boar’s Head if any of their deli meats contain GMOs and they didn’t respond. Yet, they use many ingredients that are usually derived from GMO crops like sugar (sugar beets). Added sugar and/or dextrose (typically made from GMO corn) is found in a lot of their meats, even in ones that seem healthier like their “No Salt Added Turkey Breast”. Other meats that are “maple glazed” and “honey coat” contain more sugar and dextrose than real honey or maple syrup. They also told us that their caramel coloring is derived from corn and some of them are browned in cottonseed oil (the worst GMO oil on the planet and is regulated like a textile crop (more toxic pesticides!) – cottonseed oil is not food!). Boar’s Head claims that many of their meats are “Vegetarian Grain-Fed”, yet this is often code for “GMO-fed” animals when not organic.
“Raised with Antibiotics!”
To be fair, they do have a “Natural” line that is antibiotic-free, but they told us the others are given antibiotics for disease prevention. Now that Subway has made the commitment to stop using antibiotics to raise their deli meats, hopefully Boar’s Head will follow suit. Boar’s Head also told us that they have no organic deli meat. Organic meats are prohibited from using antibiotics and growth-promoting drugs and hormones in their animals. Organic animals also can’t be fed GMOs or given drugs like ractopamine.
“Flavored with Secret and Proprietary Ingredients!”
Several of Boar’s Head meats contain “natural flavors” or “Natural Hickory Smoke Flavoring”. Just because it doesn’t contain artificial flavors, that doesn’t mean the taste isn’t fake or engineered in a lab. The chemicals that are used to make “natural flavors” are kept secret from consumers and their “safety is sometimes declared based on scientific data that isn’t publicly available”.
What about their Preservative-free claims?
Boar’s Head sent me a list of their deli meats with “No Preservatives and Without Added Nitrates”, yet I found that some of these meats – like the Cajun Style Smoked Turkey, Lemon Pepper Chicken and All American BBQ Chicken – still contained sodium phosphate. This additive is on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list of ingredients to avoid because it can increase the risk of heart disease.
Maltodextrin has no place in deli meat that takes “No Compromises”.
I found the additive maltodextrin in some of their meats: Everroast Roasted Chicken, All American BBQ Chicken, London Broil Roast Beef, Virginia Ham, and Lemon Pepper Chicken, and most of these also contain dextrose and other added sugars. These ingredients are carbohydrates and commonly used as “fillers” in cheap processed food, like the taco “meat” at Taco Bell. Maltodextrin is also often a hidden form of MSG.
I don’t eat deli meats often, but when I do this is what I choose:
- 100% certified organic (preferably grass fed/pastured) – This ensures that the animals weren’t given antibiotics or growth hormones, weren’t fed GMOs, and none of the ingredients are derived from GMOs.
- I like to roast whole pieces of organic meat, and slice it myself. This way, I know exactly what’s in it and there’s no processing!
- Whole organic sliced deli meat without sodium nitrate.
- No fillers or additives like carrageenan or maltodextrin.
- Brands that list their ingredients online (if not already pre-packaged with ingredients).
Some brands to try: Organic Prairie, Kol Foods Oven Roasted Turkey, Nuna Naturals, Applegate Farms (some contain carrageenan and fillers – so always read the ingredients!)
If you know someone who is blindly trusting Boar’s Head meat, please share this post with them. Be part of the change, take a moment and comment on Boar’s Head Facebook page here or tweet them here – tell them we deserve better.
Update 1/12/2016 – See new revealing ingredient pictures here.
Update 1/8/2016 – Reader obtained additional ingredient lists from Publix and it looks like Boar’s Head Virginia Baked Ham has MSG.