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The Case Against Bologna

(Beside the fact that I’ve never actually liked it, not even as a kid. Too flabby and bland.)

It would be so nice if once in a while, just occasionally–every other Thursday would probably be enough–the processed food industry judged nutritional value the way the CDC or NIH public health guidelines do. (The USDA and its Food Pyramid scheme, all versions, are too compromised toward the food industry for me to include.)

Take a small health column in today’s Washington PostJennifer LaRue Huget comments on Oscar Meyer’s claim that a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich has nothing on a classic bologna sandwich for health. Their contention is that the bologna sandwich is healthier because it has only 4 grams of sugar, and somewhat less total fat than a sandwich’s worth of peanut butter, about 2 tablespoons.

Huget proceeds to tear that argument down with a simple look at the nutrition label stats for both and a smidgen of common sense–why would bologna have sugar in it anyway? The bologna has less total fat but somewhat more saturated fat and cholesterol, and it has only 3 grams of protein for peanut butter’s 8. And what about the salt–800 mg for a sandwich with a single slice of bologna, compared with a PBJ at 490 mg–which is still high by my standards, but I guess it’s salted peanut butter, and quite a bit of the salt is probably in the bread itself (incidentally, did Oscar Meyer include bread in its sodium count for the bologna sandwich? did it use the same kind of bread in the PBJ comparison? Hmmm….)

Well anyway, Huget doesn’t need to work too hard to make her case. Still, there are issues she doesn’t even scratch. Obviously Oscar Meyer is trying to play up its few nutritional points and hide its glaring weaknesses–most of the processed food players have been doing this aggressively for years now. We’re mostly inured to it, and frankly we expect bologna to be high-salt and kind of fatty. No big surprises there.

So let’s get back to the main strangeness of this comparison and ask the key questions: How could peanut butter possibly have more protein than bologna? Isn’t bologna meat? What’s going on?

I headed for the USDA Nutrient Database to find out. As much as I distrust the USDA’s dietary advice and its Food Pyramid, the nutrient database is pretty vast and pretty consistent, and its holdings aren’t branded.

The protein in bologna and most other processed sandwich meats–not just Oscar Meyer brand but others as well–is considerably lower than in the same amount of plain unprocessed cooked meat. We’re talking 3 grams of protein in a 28-gram (1-oz) slice.

Oscar Meyer’s bologna is made in descending order of “mechanically separated” chicken and pork bits and then a variety of corn derivatives, both syrup and starch, plus gelatin and other fillers.

Normally you look at the top two ingredients and think “Meat! That’s the main ingredient! It’s chock-full of protein!” Actual chicken and pork–the solid meat, not the skin or fat of the chicken, and not bacon–contain about 25 grams of protein per 100 grams of meat, according to the USDA nutrient database, or about 7 grams of protein per 28 grams of meat. Not 3 grams per 28. By the time you get to bologna, you’ve got less than half the protein of actual meat.

You have two possibilities here for how that happens:

1. The company’s definition of “chicken” and “pork” includes a hefty proportion of skin and solid fat most people trim away and throw out rather than eat when they buy actual chicken or pork. Fat doesn’t have protein in it but it does weigh something. Should it be allowed to qualify as “meat”?

2. The percentages of the chicken and pork bits in the bologna are just enough higher than those of each of the filler ingredients to qualify as leading ingredients on the label, but the actual proportion of chicken-plus-pork to the total filler is something under half.

So bologna leaves a lot to be desired even compared to an old standard like PBJ, especially today when you can get peanuts-only peanut butter without fillers, and fruit-only fruit spreads without added sugars or corn syrup. And you can look on the nutrition label to find out what’s in it and what it’s worth nutritionally.

But what disturbs me, even more than the clear and present need for Huget’s column to point out Oscar Meyer’s casual sophistry in this over-informed day and age, are some of the comments her column generated. The Washington Post has a pretty liberal comment policy on just about every opinion article.

I expected some type of Food Police accusations to crop up. I’m not sure they didn’t, eventually, but when I read the piece this morning, what struck me was just how many of the commenters waxed nostalgic about how much they loved bologna. How, even with all its and Oscar Meyer’s obvious flaws, they still craved bologna when they saw the word in print. Even when they’d actually read the whole article. Brought them right back to the good old days of the elementary school cafeteria. Worse, it brought them a specific craving for bologna with mayonnaise on white bread. That plus Velveeta to cap things off.  I ask you, is there any hope?

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