Skip to main content

Frequent Consumption of Ham and Turkey Slices Could Lead to High-sodium and Carcinogenic Pitfalls Preservatives Found in All Samples Eat Less Processed Meat to Stay Healthy

  • 2021.12.15

Instant noodles with ham and egg, and sliced turkey sandwiches are popular breakfast and lunch options for Hong Kong people. However, the Consumer Council tested 23 ham and 7 turkey slice samples and found that despite over 95% (29 samples) qualifying as “high-protein” foods, over 90% (28 samples) were high in sodium. Based on the average sodium content found in the test, it is estimated that a bowl of instant noodles with ham and a sunny-side-up egg, a popular Hong Kong local dish, would incur a sodium intake (around 1,700mg) tantamount to 85% of the daily limit (2,000mg) recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), whereas that for a serving of turkey slice and cheese sandwich would reach 65% of the said limit. The Council reminds consumers not to rely on ham and turkey slices as the main source of protein, to avoid increased risks of high blood pressure due to excessive sodium intake. Besides, processed meats have been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1 agents), meaning that prolonged excessive intake could increase the risk of cancer.

Close to half (14) of the tested samples were found with discrepancies between the test results of nutrient content and the declared values on the labelling, exceeding the tolerance limits (20%). The most severe case was a sample of turkey slices, which showed a 90.4% discrepancy between the actual total fat content and the declared value. Another 3 samples did not comply with the definition of claims as “zero” on their nutrition labels. The Council has referred the test results to the Centre for Food Safety (CFS) for follow-up action. Furthermore, the preservatives nitrate and/or nitrite were found in all samples, and while the detected amount did not exceed the legal limits, 8 samples did not comprehensively and clearly declare the relevant ingredients on their labelling. As inaccurate or non-comprehensive labelling could have particularly serious health impacts to patients with chronic diseases, such as heart diseases and diabetes, the Council urges manufacturers to promptly review and rectify the discrepancies on the nutrition labels, so as to provide consumers with accurate information.

Over 90% Samples Were High in Sodium

Ham and turkey slices are processed meat which are generally high in sodium content. Based on the content per 100g, the 30 samples contained sodium ranging from 500mg to 1,320mg, of which 28 reached the level of “high-sodium” food (i.e. over 600mg sodium content per 100g solid food sample) defined by the CFS. The average sodium content of ham (937mg) was also found to be around 5% higher than that of turkey slices (888mg). Referencing the breakfast habits of Hong Kong people, consumption of 1 bowl of instant noodles with ham and a sunny-side-up fried egg would incur a sodium intake of around 1,700mg, equivalent to approximately 85% of the WHO’s recommended daily limit (2,000mg). Alternatively, 1 serving of sliced turkey and cheese sandwich would bring on a sodium intake of about 1,300mg, amounting to 65% of the daily limit. As such, consumers should be mindful of the portion size consumed, to avoid increased risks of high blood pressure due to prolonged excessive sodium intake.

Apart from 1 sample classified as a “source of protein” (i.e. no less than 10% of the Chinese Nutrient Reference Values (NRV) for protein per 100g solid food sample, i.e. 6g), the remaining 29 samples reached the “high-protein” food level (i.e. no less than 20% of the Chinese NRV for protein per 100g solid food sample, i.e. 12g) with protein contents ranging from 13.1g to 23.0g.

The total fat content also vastly varied, with that per 100g ranging from 0.7g to 13.3g, amongst which 10 samples were “low-fat” foods (i.e. no more than 3g total fat per 100g solid food sample). The samples also showed a huge variance in saturated fatty acid content, with a 19-time difference between the samples with the lowest (0.214g) and highest (4.36g) levels. These 2 samples were also the lowest (0.7g) and the highest (13.3g) in total fat content. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet for an adult, consuming 1 slice (around 51g) of the sample with the highest saturated fatty acid content would incur a saturated fatty acid intake of 2.2g, amounting to 11% of the WHO’s recommended daily intake limit (20g saturated fatty acids).

Nutrition Labels of Over Half the Samples Incompliant with Regulations

Upon comparing the test results of nutrient contents and the declared values on the products’ nutrition labels, 14 samples were found with discrepancies incompliant with tolerance limits. Amongst this, the total fat content for 10 samples, saturated fatty acid for 5 samples, sodium for 3, sugar for 2 and protein for 1 sample had a discrepancy higher than 20%, incompliant with the tolerance limits of CFS’ “Technical Guidance Notes on Nutrition Labelling and Nutrition Claims”. The greatest discrepancy was found in a sample of turkey slices, which was detected with 3.4g total fat content per 100g in the test as compared to the declared value of 1.8g, representing an approximate 90% variance.

The test results also revealed that 3 samples did not comply with the definitions of claims as “zero” on their nutrition labelling, including the saturated fatty acid content of 2 turkey slice samples, and the sugar content for 1 ham sample. The Council urges manufacturers and agents to promptly review and rectify the nutrition labelling information to avoid misleading consumers into purchasing unsuitable products.

Preservatives/Colour Retention Agents Found in All Samples

Nitrates and nitrites are commonly found in processed meats, as they could be used as preservatives to inhibit the growth of Clostridium botulinum and other bacteria, and also serve as colour retention agents to retain the colour of meat. However, nitrates and nitrites cause endogenous nitrosation in the human body, which could produce “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A) agents, such as N-nitrosamines. Amongst the 30 tested samples, 7 were detected with nitrate and 1 with nitrite, while another 22 were found to contain both nitrate and nitrite. The detected amounts of nitrate ranged from 1.78ppm to 18.3ppm, a difference of 9 times, while that for nitrite ranged from 0.423ppm to 33.2ppm, a difference of 77 times. Although all levels did not exceed the legal limit, 2 samples of ham did not specify the relevant contents in the ingredients list on the packaging; 2 turkey slice samples even claimed on their packaging to have “no nitrates or nitrites” or “no nitrates or nitrites added”; 4 other samples were labelled as “no nitrates or nitrites added” but declared on their labelling that certain added ingredients contained nitrates or nitrites. The Council reminds that any additives contained in pre-packaged foods must be declared, and if such preservatives occur in the ingredients, manufacturers are advised to pay heed to the ingredients list when sourcing the raw materials, and provide additional information of this on the product labelling. If the product contains no added preservatives but the ingredients have naturally occurring preservatives, it is recommended to avoid confusing labelling such as “no…” or “no… added”, so that consumers could obtain accurate and comprehensive information.

2 ham samples were detected with the plasticiser di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP) at levels of 0.10mg/kg and 0.12mg/kg respectively, while another 2 samples of ham were detected with ractopamine at levels of 1.2µg/kg and 2.0 µg/kg. However, the detected amounts all fell within the action level (1.5mg/kg for DEHP, 10µg/kg for ractopamine) set by the CFS, meaning that normal consumption probably will not pose health risks.

When purchasing and consuming ham and turkey slices, consumers should pay heed to the following:

  • Carefully inspect whether the packaging is intact, the product expiry date, and pay attention to the product description, ingredients list and nutrition label. Select options that are lower in fat and sodium where possible;
  • Although ham and turkey slices are rich in protein, their sodium contents are also relatively high. As such, these meats should be consumed in moderation and should not be treated as the main source of protein. Consumers should maintain a balanced and diversified diet, choose unprocessed and low-fat meat, and consume more foods that are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, so as to lower the risks of high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases.

Download the article (Chinese only):


Consumer Council reserves all its right (including copyright) in respect of CHOICE magazine and Online CHOICE.