What's really in your sliced ham?

The ham in the beloved ‘hang sangwich’ contains a lot more than just meat

Vegans trying to win over Irish people have their work cut out trying to wrest the ham sandwiches from our hands.

It’s not just the taste that makes this processed meat popular, it’s the price and the convenience. A few slices of good ham between bread need little embellishment to make a meal on the go.

Ireland doesn't really have the climate to dry-cure ham as is done on the continent, so here it is baked or boiled usually. Unless you cook it at home, however, it is likely the ham you eat is highly processed and involves the use of a range of flavours, additives and preservatives.

Let’s get the worst out of the way first.


Sliced ham as sold tends to be high in salt and generally has nitrates and nitrites. These are preservatives that also give a nice pinkish tone to the flesh. The World Health Organisation has warned the consumption of such processed meat is associated with "small increases in the risk of cancer in the studies reviewed". So the key is to have ham in moderation.

So what can you learn from the label?

For such a simple product, there is quite a variety even within brands, but more expensive does not necessarily mean better. Take Denny, for example. Its Deli-Style Crumbed Ham comes in very plain packaging and costs just €1 for 100g. The packet indicates the pork used is Irish and the list of ingredients is not too long. It reads: pork (95 per cent), salt, breadcrumb, sugar, pork protein, antioxidant (sodium ascorbate), preservative (sodium nitrite), breadcrumb containing wheat flour, water, salt, paprika and yeast. It notes there are no added phosphates, though there are some that occur naturally. Concerns have been raised about the use of phosphates in the food industry in the European Union and there may be changes demanded of producers in future.

It also says, “Cured and cooked sliced ham reformed from cuts of pork leg meat coated in breadcrumb.” This means chopped-up pieces of meat from the legs of one or a number of pigs is shaped into the required form, with a layer of fat often added on top to make it look more natural.

Contrast that with Denny’s Fire and Smoke Cajun Creole Ham, which costs closer to €3 for 100g – or three times the price. The packaging is downright sexy, featuring some barbecue-ready dude, and the words “true southern flavour”, and “Cajun infused for extra flavour.”

Is that why it costs more?

Very sweet

It’s really very sweet and somewhat spicy, with sugar popping up five times in the ingredients as: sugar, caramelised sugar syrup, molasses powder, dextrose and sugar powder. So that part is probably truly American.

The full list also includes: salt, stabilisers (sodium triphosphate, sodium polyphosphate), spice and herb extracts, smoke flavouring (celery), antioxidant (sodium ascorbate), preservative (sodium nitrite), natural flavouring (milk). Notice the phosphates. The smoke flavouring actually comes from celery. What chemistry does that? It also says, “prepared with 100g of raw pork per 100g of finished product”, which seems obvious until you look at other brands.

The packet on the Brady Family Traditional Carved Ham states that it takes 115g of raw pork to make 100g of finished product, which means you are getting a more concentrated product for your money. It also says there is “no added water”, which is helpful as many hams are pumped with water to keep costs down.

It’s far from perfect though, as it contains phosphates, nitrates, nitrites and three forms of sugar. It has: Irish pork, salt, stabilisers (sodium triphosphate, sodium polyphosphate), dried glucose syrup, dextrose, yeast extract, antioxidant (sodium ascorbate), preservatives (sodium nitrite, potassium nitrate), sugar, crumb dressing: pork gelatine, wheat flour, yeast and colour (paprika extract).

Horgan’s Premium Blacky Ham, which is made in Cork, says on the front of the packet: “No less than 100 per cent meat”. But the list of the ingredients says it is 98 per cent Irish pork and the second ingredient is water. Is it any wonder people are confused? The simplest product I found was Tesco’s Finest Wiltshire Cured Ham. It had just Irish pork, salt and preservatives (sodium nitrite, potassium nitrate).

That sounds more like the makings of a “hang sangwich” to me.

 Being a successful shopper
2) Bread
3) Milk
4) Cereal
5) Rashers
6) Yoghurt
7) Soup
8) Hummus
9) Pasta sauce
10) Chinese ready meals
 Frozen chips
12) Chilled fish
13) Egg

14) Chicken Kiev
15) Crisps
16) Mayonnaise
17) Baked beans
18) Tomato ketchup
19) Chocolate digestive biscuits

20) Avocados
21) Cadbury's Dairy Milk
22) Dark chocolate
23) Salad Cream
24) Pesto sauce
25) Smoothies
26) Sliced ham
27) Vanilla ice cream

28) Ice-pop
29) Jaffa cakes
Protein bars
31) Energy bars
32) Chicken Tikka Masala
33) MiWadi
34) Peanut butter