Nutrients in evolution

The nutritional improvement of the raw material, especially concerning the fat, vitamin and mineral content, has been accompanied by the continuous progress of the food processing industry. In particular, the development of production systems, the constant control of drying and maturing periods, greater attention to the quantity and quality of the spices used, means a significant reduction of salts, sodium chloride in primis. In relation to the latter and the technological limits to which reference was made previously and given that the first function of salt in these cases is that of a preservative, it is evident that this cannot be eliminated at will. Research is continuing in this direction and systems are being studied to replace sodium chloride (even in part) with possible substitutes, such as potassium chloride mixed with other salts, without however modifying the traditional organoleptic balance of the deli meats.


Salt and deli meats. What has changed?

Deli meats must be treated with salts in order to be produced and preserved. The importance of the oldest preservation ingredient and the most used around the world for maturing processes in the realisation of deli meat products having renowned universal flavour, emerges already from analysis of the roots of the term: the word ‘salume‘ derives from salt. Sodium, found naturally in many foodstuffs, makes up a part of common table salt. Even if the amount of sodium required by our organism is assured by the content found naturally in foods, we tend to add salt during cooking and at the table in order to satisfy our palate. Commonly, also industrially processed products and away-from-home meals can be rich in salt. Even if it is an indispensable mineral for the correct functioning of the organism (it regulates osmosis, participates in the creation of the concentration and electrical gradient along with potassium, intervenes in nerve supply and in muscular contraction), an excessive level of sodium in the blood increases the risk of several cardiovascular and renal illnesses, both due to increased blood pressure and also independently from this mechanism.

Reduction of dietary salt can therefore be an important preventive and curative measure for many people. Thanks to the intense media coverage of the subjects that correlate salt with health, the content of this ingredient is being reduced in many food products, often under the protection of the authorities that stipulate the commitment with the category associations or with the individual companies. In the case of the deli meats processing industry, which has always paid great attention to customer requirements, independent moves have been made in the last few years in order to find solutions that can minimize the use of salt, while respecting the prescriptions of the various production regulations.

In this way, the salt content (and consequently sodium) in Italian deli meats has reduced greatly, even if with variable impact on the different products, as highlighted by the new analytic values available on this subject. It can be deduced that the trend for improvement is general and consists in a reduction of salt going from about 4% to over 45% depending on the product. The variability between the different products is governed by several factors, among which the initial content, the impact of production techniques on the product (that allow to make modifications in different measures), as well as protection of the recipes. In any case, considering the portions and quantities effectively consumed every week and in the light of the data given above deriving from the new analyses and with respect to the past, today it is all the more possible to confirm that deli meats are not the most significant source of salt in the diet. This position is held by other food products consumed daily and in a greater amount (such as cereal derivatives). Limited quantities of other preservative ingredients, in addition to salt, are allowed by law in the formulation of different deli meats.

These are nitrates in particular and sometimes nitrites, additives that were used greatly in the past when the artificial refrigeration methods used today were not available and the work environments were not subjected to the current thorough controls. Thanks to the use of fridges and microbiological knowledge, as well as the respect for hygiene rules and the exploitation of the bacteriostatic properties of spices and aromatic herbs such as garlic, pepper and chilli pepper, today it is possible to produce salamis like in the past but which are safer from a sanitary point of view and which have improved organoleptic properties and small amount of preservatives. Also the content of nitrates in some deli meats has reduced greatly through the years until near elimination, while the nitrites practically no longer exist.


In relation to the vitamin content, the data disclosed in 1993 highlights a significant content of group B vitamins, particularly B1, B2 and B3 (i.e. thiamine, riboflavin and niacin, or PP), respectively important for the state of nutrition of the nervous tissues and for the metabolism of carbohydrates, the state of nutrition of the skin and mucous membranes, for cellular respiration and the synthesis and break down of amino acids, fatty acids and cholesterol. Today, these vitamins are sometimes present in large quantities, exceeding 30% of the recommended daily amount for an adult in just one portion, as in the case of vitamin B1 (as happens for example for cooked ham and PDO rough hams).

A significant amount of vitamin B6 (or pyridoxine) in some deli meats also emerges from the new analyses. This is a precursor of an enzyme, which is important in the metabolism of nitrogen compounds and can therefore affect the use of the proteins by part of the organism, but also in the synthesis of haemoglobin and the metabolism of carbohydrates and lipids. Moreover, being meat derivatives, deli meats are also known as a source of vitamin B12: however, analytic data supporting this fact was not available until now and the experimental values known date back to the microbiological analysis performed in the 50’s.

Vitamin B12 performs many very important functions
, intervening in the maturation of red blood cells, in nerve functions and in the biosynthesis of hemoproteins: deficiency of the same can cause problems to the nervous system and production of cells in the blood, until a form of anaemia defined ‘pernicious' occurs; vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause a lack of folic acid, with a further risk of anaemia. It is also involved in the metabolism of fatty acids, amino acids and nucleic acids.

The dietary reference value for the intake of this vitamin by the adult population is 2.5 micrograms/day. Remember that it resists cooking and can only be found in foods of animal origin. This is why vegetarian diets are at a great risk of vitamin B12 deficiency and a vegan diet is not recommended during of pregnancy (when daily requirement increases), in order to prevent the risk of irreversible neurological damage to the future child, especially if the baby is to be breastfed. Many Italian deli meats contain significant quantities of this precious vitamin: actually, bresaola supplies a quantity per portion that covers 15% of the requirement of the adult population. The control carried out over the last few years on the pig’s diet has also allowed to obtain meats containing vitamin E, a natural antioxidant that decays easily in light and the presence of heat, important because it contributes to the maintenance of cellular integrity. A vitamin E deficiency, generally associated with malnutrition generally leads to development disorders, including problems with the nervous system and general metabolism. The recommended dietary value for a healthy adult is around 12 mg a day.

Mineral salts

Pig meat and relative processed products have a good content of several mineral salts, for which there is a recommended daily intake level. These mineral salts are defined as ‘trace elements’ as even minimum doses are indispensible for good functioning of the organism. These elements are also present in a highly bioavailable form in foodstuffs of animal origin. This is due to the affinity of the animal substrates with those of humans. It must also be considered that some of the precious mineral salts can be lost during meat cooking processes. Instead, deli meats (also cooked products, as long as ‘delicate’ cooking methods are used) basically keep the amount of such elements intact.

The analyses performed in 1993 on the mineral content of deli meats already showed the presence, sometimes significant of iron, zinc and potassium, in fact in a more bioavailable form with respect to that contained in foodstuffs of vegetable origin. Other minerals, among which magnesium, copper, phosphorus and selenium, for which data was available in previous literature, sometimes resulted in significant amounts. These minerals are necessary for many physiological and biochemical processes.

The fat trends: everything you must know

When considering a healthy diet, the correct amount of lipids must be consumed daily. This is equal to 25-30% of the total calories consumed by a healthy adult that practices moderate physical activity. As well as constituting a concentration of energy (9 kcal/g), the lipids supply essential fatty acids (thus defined because they are not synthesized by the organism but intervene in the regulation of many physiological processes) in the omega-3 and omega-6 families and favour the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K and carotenoids. Whether they can be visible or hidden in the food matrices, liquids or solids, all lipids supply the same amount of energy, but they can be different at a qualitative level and have important effects on the state of health depending on their composition in fatty acids (which can be saturated, unsaturated or trans). Fatty acids generally have a solid aspect at room temperature, conferred by the absence of double bonds inside the molecule. These fatty acids are characteristic of products of animal origin, in which variable amounts of cholesterol are also found: to favour the good health of the heart and arteries it is a good idea to follow a diet that is not too rich in these types of fats, limiting intake to less than 20-30 g a day in a balanced diet of 2000 kcal, calculated for the requirements of a healthy adult (i.e. between 7 and 10% total daily calorie intake), also in cases where there is no tendency to have high cholesterol levels in the blood. Being derivatives of animal origin, deli meats are among the foodstuffs indicated that supply large amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol to the diet. In reality, the quantity of lipids has greatly decreased in the current production of deli meats and, thanks to modern pig rearing techniques, which are fed on maize, barley and soya-based products, the compositional quality has been optimized at the same time.

In particular, this improvement has affected all cooked "insaccato" products, due to the fact that the operators in the chain have a greater possibility to intervene. Thanks to the ‘technological’ content of this type of deli meat, they have been more easily and more greatly affected by the evolution and innovation processes that involve the sector industry. The saturated fat content in cotechino, cooked ham and zampone has been greatly reduced (up to almost 40%); with improvements also in mortadella and Prosciutto di San Daniele PDO. As a consequence of the saturated fat reduction in some deli meats and, in some cases, the increase in unsaturated fats (which can have positive effects on the heart and circulation and could also have a role in the prevention of some tumours), there has been a reduction in the ratio between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. With respect to previous data, this now tends greatly towards the typical values of vegetable oils or fish. Continuous improvement has led to the attainment of a balance between the saturated and unsaturated fat content: in most products the precious fats such as the unsaturated ones have passed from 30% to over 60% of total fats

Parallel to the reduction of saturated fats, considerable reductions of the cholesterol content have also been recorded, for some products in particular such as cooked ham, pancetta and cotechino. In spite of the positive evolution in the composition and fat content, some deli meats such as mortadella are still victims of discrimination relative to the excessive content of fats and cholesterol. In reality, from a nutritional point of view, the presence of fatty acids is balanced and is mostly made up from monosaturated fatty acids, the same contained in olive oil and able to reduce the excess serum LDL cholesterol (i.e. the ‘bad’ type) and increase the HDL (‘good’ type) at the same time. Let's take a look for example at mortadella in this chart: