Pepperoni. The quintessential pizza topping. Developed by Italian-Americans in the early 1900s, in the USA; that’s right, pepperoni wasn’t brought over from Italy! It’s spicy, smoky, fatty, and salty, and a quick Google search for “pepperoni keto recipes” yields over 3 million website suggestions. A protein and fat source, with no carbs. This means that it must be keto-friendly, right?
Keto is Not Just About Low-Carb and High-Fat
Let’s talk a little bit about the ketogenic diet. A keto diet is a diet where the majority of the daily calories come from fat, the rest coming from protein and carbohydrates. In a traditional keto diet, 75% of daily calories come from fat, 20% from protein, and 5% from carbohydrates. This might sound overwhelming, and it can be.
The important thing to remember about a keto diet is that it does not give you free range to consume endless amounts of meat, cheese, and eggs. Rather, the ideal keto diet is heavy in nutritious, non-starchy vegetables, unsaturated fat sources (like olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds), and lean, unprocessed protein sources (salmon, turkey, chicken, lean red meat).
Difference Between Processed and Unprocessed Meat
You might be wondering what the difference is between an unprocessed and processed meat or protein? Well, an unprocessed meat has not been altered. For example, a boneless, skinless pork tenderloin would be considered an unprocessed meat. This is the whole version of the food, which is considered the most nutritious. It is high in protein, very low in fat and sodium, and can be a great addition to a keto diet (when consumed in moderation).
The processed version would be pepperoni or sausage; one of those sausages starts with bits and pieces of pork and beef, which are ground up, formed back together (with the addition of seasonings, preservatives, and sometimes fillers), and then inserted back into a casing before being cured. Technically, it’s not even cooked. It’s hard to know what you are putting in your body when you eat processed foods because the ingredient list can be long and filled with unfamiliar terms.
Processed Meats Should Be Avoided Even If They Are Low in Carbs
Traditionally, to consume the most nutritious diet (even while following a keto diet), the fewer ingredients, the better. This gives you much more control over what you are eating, which can help you to make better, more healthful decisions.
So, back to pepperoni. Does this fit in a keto diet? The answer is, simply put, not on a regular basis. Nutritionally, one ounce of pepperoni offers 150 calories, 14 grams of fat (6 grams of saturated fat), 5 grams of protein, and 520 mg of sodium. Other ingredients include nitrites, BHA, and BHT, which are used to preserve the meat.
But, what does that all mean? Let’s look at the 3 reasons that makes pepperoni not suited for a keto diet.
3 Reasons Why Pepperoni Is Not Keto-Friendly
- Contains Nitrites That May Lead To Heart Disease and Cancer
A research article published in 2005 stated that nitrites (which are found in pepperoni and other processed meats) could cause arteries to harden, which can be an early marker for hypertension and heart disease.
Nitrites have also been found to lead to an increased risk of cancer. They are commonly found in processed meats because they help to keep their color bright and keep them shelf-stable by preventing bacterial growth. When heated (like on Keto-friendly pizza), nitrites can form nitrosamines, which have been linked to cancer, specifically colon or intestinal cancer.
- Loaded in Sodium Which May Cause Hypertension and Stomach Ulcers
Along with nitrites, pepperoni is high in sodium. The American Heart Association states that a healthy American shouldn’t eat more than 2300 milligrams of sodium in a day, and is trying to bring that down to just 1500 milligrams of sodium.
One ounce of pepperoni (about 14 slices) provides 520 milligrams, which is anywhere from 25 to 35% of your daily recommended sodium. Sodium can make hypertension worse, and since there was a link between processed meat consumption and hypertension, it reiterates the fact that processed meats are not a healthy source of protein for daily consumption.
A diet high in sodium can also promote the growth of H.pylori in the stomach, which causes stomach ulcers. Stomach ulcers are a risk factor for the development of stomach cancer.
- Smoked Meats Are High In Cancer-Forming PAHs
Smoking is one of the popular ways to preserve pepperoni. Not only does it make the pepperoni last longer, but it also brings out the umami flavor from the meat.
While smoked meats such as pepperoni are delicious, they can also increase the risk of cancer due to its high Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) content.
PAHs are usually formed when processed meats such as pepperoni were smoked by burning wood and charcoal. That’s also the reason why it’s usually advised to avoid charcoal-burned meat.
Not on a daily basis. Pepperoni is high in nitrates and sodium which can both lead to heart disease and other health problems. You’re better off eating lean proteins and getting a majority of your fat from unsaturated, heart-healthy sources like olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, and eggs.
Pepperoni contains sodium nitrite. The difference between nitrate and nitrite is one more oxygen molecule bonded in nitrate vs. two oxygen molecules in nitrite. Interestingly enough, nitrates can convert to nitrites in the body.
It would depend on the brand. You’d have to look at the ingredients and see if soy is listed on the label. Additionally, if you have a soy allergy, you’d want to check that the pepperoni wasn’t processed in a facility that also handles soy, because of the risk of cross-contamination.
You’d have to check the label. MSG, monosodium glutamate, is glutamic acid with sodium added. Glutamic acid is naturally occurring in the body, and MSG is used as a flavor enhancer and preservative. Interestingly enough, many people who think that they are sensitive to MSG are, in fact, not. MSG is on the “GRAS” list (Generally Recognized as Safe), and research has not yet found a direct link between ingesting MSG and the adverse reactions that most people perceive feeling after eating MSG.
Pepperoni itself does not cause colon cancer. However, pepperoni contains nitrites, which can form nitrosamines when exposed to heat. Nitrosamines have been linked to the development of colon and intestinal cancers. So, limiting your processed food and meat intake (including pepperoni) is one way to reduce your risk of developing cancer.
Traditionally, pepperoni is made from a mixture of pork and beef. However, there are other versions that contain other meats and non-meat products. It would be best to check the ingredient label if you avoid pork for dietary or religious reasons. A certified Kosher or Halal pepperoni would not contain pork.
Not always. Many processed meats contain gluten as a filler or binder, so the safest way to avoid gluten is to check to make sure the label states “gluten-free”. Or, try to avoid eating processed meats and it will reduce your chances of accidentally ingesting gluten.
During pregnancy, it’s important to avoid lunch meats and processed meats that haven’t been heated, due to the risk of listeria contamination. So, as long as it’s heated, you should be fine. That being said, heating pepperoni increases the risk for production of nitrosamines, which can lead to other health problems.
Yes, pepperoni is perfectly safe to freeze. Just make sure to use freezer-safe packaging to avoid freezer burn.
If pepperoni contains beef, then yes, it would be considered a red meat. However, if it’s a turkey version, it would be considered poultry. A soy or plant-based version would be considered a vegetarian item.
Yes, pepperoni is safe to eat raw. Technically, it’s raw meat, because it’s not been cooked. Instead, it’s fermented and aged (thanks to the addition of preservatives and lactic acid) until it’s ready to eat. However, if you are pregnant, or have a weakened immune system, it would be better to heat it before consuming it or avoid it altogether.