Ham is a popular deli meat, appetizer, and entrée that you’ve likely eaten on sandwiches or with holiday meals.
It’s a pork product that comes from pigs’ legs. The red meat is usually preserved with salt or smoke, though this process varies depending on the type.
Since it’s a processed meat, you may wonder whether ham is good for you. This article reviews ham’s nutrients, benefits, and downsides to determine whether it’s healthy.
Nutrients in ham
Ham is high in protein but low in carbs, fat, and fiber. It’s also low in calories when eaten alone. Just 2 ounces (57 grams) — approximately 3–4 thin slices — of ham provide:
- Calories: 69
- Protein: 11 grams
- Fat: 2 grams
- Carbs: 1.5 grams
- Fiber: 0 grams
- Sugar: 1.25 grams
- Sodium: 26% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Selenium: 42–76% of the DV
- Phosphorus: 11% of the DV
- Zinc: 9% of the DV
- Potassium: 6% of the DV
- Iron: 3% of the DV
- Copper: 3% of the DV
- Magnesium: 3% of the DV
Ham is particularly rich in selenium, providing up to 76% of the DV per 2 ounces (57 grams), depending on the type. Selenium is an essential nutrient that aids reproduction, DNA construction, and defense from infections.
Compared with poultry and fish, pork products like ham are higher in iron, thiamine, and other B vitamins. Yet, pork may be lower in some nutrients than other red meats, such as beef.
Ham also provides all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Amino acids help build proteins and play critical roles in metabolism, gene expression, and cell communication.
What’s more, this popular red meat contains decent amounts of phosphorus, zinc, and potassium, which help your body produce energy, fight infections, and maintain heart health.
Furthermore, ham and other meats are a rich dietary source of carnosine, choline, and coenzyme Q10 — compounds that aid energy production and cell messaging throughout your body.
Ham is a lean protein that contains important vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. It’s particularly rich in selenium.
How ham is made
Ham begins as a piece of raw pork cut from the hind legs of a pig. It’s then cleaned and cured using one or more of the following methods:
- Dry curing. The pork is covered in salt and herbs and periodically pressed to remove the blood before being washed and hung in a climate-controlled space for 6–24 months.
- Wet curing. The pork is infused or soaked for 3–14 days in a liquid brine made with ingredients similar to those used in dry curing, including nitrates and nitrites.
- Smoking. The pork is hung in a smokehouse, where it absorbs additional flavors and colors from the smoke.
Some products like canned ham are mechanically formed. This method preserves, flavors, and finely chops muscle meat from the pig’s leg, then reshapes and packages it.
Cured and mechanically formed hams are the most common, but you can also buy fresh raw ham. Because this type isn’t cured or cooked, you must cook it fully before it’s safe to eat. Cooking a fresh ham takes longer than reheating a cured ham.
Keep in mind that factors like the type of pig feed and processing method affect ham’s nutritional value.
One study found that dry-cured ham had significantly lower levels of the beneficial antioxidant glutathione than fresh pork. Still, most compounds were unchanged, and some amino acid levels even increased after curing.
Whereas cured hams are preserved using salt or smoke, fresh hams are raw and must be fully cooked prior to consumption. Mechanically formed ham is a highly processed variety.
Types of ham
Ham looks and tastes differently depending on the type, as well as where you live. Many cultures maintain unique methods of curing ham.
Some of the most common types of ham are:
- Deli ham. Also known as lunch meat or a cold cut, this ham is cured, sliced, and usually prepackaged.
- Chopped or “chipped” ham. These ham chunks are ground, seasoned, and shaped into a loaf.
- City ham. This type is smoked or lightly cured using a wet brine and must be refrigerated to stay preserved.
- Country ham. This kind is dry-cured with a large amount of salt so that it can be stored safely at room temperature.
- Honey glazed. This ham is usually reheated in a glaze of sugar, honey, and other spices.
- Smithfield ham. This type is a country ham that’s cured in Smithfield, Virginia.
- The Black Forest. This dry-cured and smoked ham originates in the Black Forest of Germany.
- Limerick ham. This smoked ham originates in Ireland and is boiled in a mixture of cider and spices before being baked in the oven.
- Gammon. This British term describes a ham that’s lightly cured but must be cooked again prior to consumption.
- York ham. This salty and firm dry-cured ham comes from white English pigs.
- Prosciutto. This Italian dry-cured ham is usually cut thin and served cold.
- Jamón. This dry-cured ham is produced in Spain and often served as tapas.
- Anfu ham. This type uses one of the oldest known Chinese methods of dry curing and smoking.
- Prague ham. A delicacy in the Czech Republic, this tender ham is wet cured, stewed, and smoked.
Ham varies significantly in flavor and nutrients depending on the style and curing method.
Does ham have any health benefits?
Eating ham occasionally may offer several health benefits.
Rich in beneficial nutrients
Ham is rich in protein, minerals, and other nutrients that support optimal health. The most notable include:
- Selenium. Although evidence is limited, normal blood levels of selenium are linked to lower rates of thyroid disease, heart disease, and some types of cancer.
- Carnosine. This amino acid compound not only has antioxidant properties but may also offer anti-aging effects and enhance exercise performance and brain function.
- Choline. This essential nutrient is especially important for pregnant women, as it may improve the choline content of breastmilk and have positive effects on placental health.
- Coenzyme Q10. Although more research is needed, this coenzyme is associated with improved outcomes for people with heart failure and metabolic conditions.
May support weight loss
Regularly eating foods with a low-calorie density may promote weight loss by helping you feel full for longer. Calorie density is a measure of calories relative to the weight (in grams) or volume (in mL) of a given food.
It’s measured on this scale:
- Low: 1.5 or below
- Medium: 1.5–2.25
- High: 2.25 or more
Sliced ham clocks in at 1.2, giving it a low-calorie density. Thus, it may be a good protein to eat in moderation if you’re trying to lose weight.
Still, water-rich foods with a low-calorie density, such as fruits and vegetables, make even better choices for weight loss.
May help maintain muscle mass
Since ham and other pork products contain many amino acids, they’re often considered high-quality protein sources. Regularly eating these proteins may play a crucial role in maintaining muscle mass and strength, particularly among older adults.
Moreover, ham is a good source of the molecule carnosine, which may improve exercise performance. Nevertheless, some studies suggest that the association between dietary protein intake and muscle mass isn’t as strong as initially thought.
Certain types may reduce inflammation
Spanish-style Iberian ham, or Jamón Ibérico, comes from black Iberian pigs that eat a diet of grains and corn before grazing on acorns, grass, and herbs prior to slaughter.
Recent studies suggest that this type of ham doesn’t increase your risk of chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, compared with other types.
Several studies even indicate that some of its compounds exert antioxidant-like effects that decrease the risk of inflammation and endothelial harm associated with high blood pressure.
All the same, further research is necessary.
Ham is a low-calorie protein that provides beneficial nutrients and may help you maintain muscle mass.
Potential downsides of ham
People may avoid or limit meats like ham for a number of reasons, such as their high amounts of preservatives and salt.
In addition, ham may have several drawbacks.
May increase your risk of cancer
Curing and smoking — the primary cooking methods for ham — result in higher concentrations of several known carcinogens, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), N-nitroso compounds (NOCs), and heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs).
Levels of these compounds increase even more when the ham is reheated using high-temperature cooking methods like grilling, pan-frying, and barbecuing.
Furthermore, nitrate- and nitrite-based preservatives, which are sometimes added to ham to retain its color, limit bacterial growth, and prevent rancidity, may likewise cause cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) holds that processed meats like ham cause colorectal cancer and possibly pancreatic and prostate cancers.
Very high in sodium
Processed meats like ham contribute significant amounts of salt to many people’s diets around the world. In fact, a 2-ounce (57-gram) serving of ham delivers nearly 26% of the DV for sodium.
High sodium intake is linked to an increased risk of conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and kidney failure. Consequently, people who have these conditions or are at risk of developing them may want to limit their ham intake.
Potential chronic disease risk
Although a link between processed meat and cancer risk is well established, studies show mixed results regarding how ham affects your risk of other chronic diseases.
On one hand, Spanish-style Iberian ham may protect against inflammation. On the other hand, large human studies show a higher mortality rate among those who eat processed red meat often — likely due to an increased susceptibility to chronic disease.
One meta-analysis found that eating 1.76 ounces (50 grams) of processed red meat per day not only increased one’s risk of prostate and colorectal cancers but also breast cancer, stroke, and death due to heart disease.
Keep in mind that these studies aren’t specific to ham, as they include other processed meats like roast beef, bacon, sausage, and hot dogs.
Plus, in these types of large cohort studies, it can be difficult to isolate the direct effects of processed meat from other lifestyle factors that influence death and chronic disease.
As such, more research is needed.
May increase your risk of foodborne illness
Although outbreaks of food poisoning linked directly to ham have decreased in recent years, processed meats and sliced deli meat like ham remain at a high risk of contamination by Listeria, Staphylococcus, and Toxoplasma gondii bacteria.
Therefore, people who have a high risk of contracting foodborne illness may want to avoid ham. These populations include young children, older adults, and those who are immunocompromised or pregnant.
Ham and other processed meats are very high in salt and associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.
How much ham you should eat?
Although ham has several potential benefits, it may be best to eat it in moderation due to its downsides.
Multiple cancer organizations, including the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and American Cancer Society (ACS), advise people to eat very little if any, processed meat.
Since research links processed meat to colorectal, stomach, pancreatic, and prostate cancers, people with a family history of these cancers may especially wish to limit or avoid ham.
Choosing less processed types of ham may be one way to lower its health risks.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends eating 26 ounces (737 grams) of meat, poultry, and eggs per week — while limiting processed meats and choosing from a variety of plant and animal proteins.
Thus, ham can be one of many protein choices in a healthy diet. Bear in mind that a fresh ham usually contains less sodium and fewer carcinogens than cured or processed ham, so look closely at the label to determine whether it’s fresh, lean, or low in salt.
Some cancer organizations suggest eating as little processed meat as possible due to their health risks. All the same, if you want to enjoy ham, eat it in moderation and choose types that are fresh, lean, and low in sodium.
The bottom line
Ham is a cut of pork that’s typically cured and preserved, although it’s also sold fresh. It’s rich in protein and several beneficial nutrients.
However, regularly eating processed meats like ham may increase your risk of certain cancers. Thus, it’s best to limit your intake and stick to fresh, less processed types of ham as part of a balanced diet.
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