Eating ham at Christmas is a tradition around the world. The indulgence of a succulent joint of glazed ham makes it a perfect celebration food.
Traditionally basted with broth, Christmas hams are now flavoured with a range of sweet glazes including blood orange, bourbon, maple syrup, cloves, plum, ginger, and apple cider.
There are two types of ham that are most commonly consumed at Christmas. A baked ham treated with brine (wet cured) and smoked, or a dry cured ham processed with salt and air-dried. The most popular types of dry cured hams for Christmas are smoked hams.
Because ham is always processed with salt, it always comes with a significant amount of sodium. The FDA guidance on sodium in ham is 1360mg per 100g, while the WHO sets a stricter benchmark of 950mg of sodium per 100g.
We had a look at Yule hams around the world, and how they measured up to these targets.
Having just finished their Thanksgiving turkeys, Americans usually prefer to include other meats in their Christmas celebrations. Some opt for beef or lamb, but the most popular choice is a baked ham. Studded with cloves and covered in pineapple rings, the Christmas ham is an impressive centrepiece of the festive spread.
In the US, dry cured smoked ham is known as “country style” ham. A more popular choice is the “spiral cut” baked ham which is purchased pre-sliced, making serving more convenient.
All the hams we looked at in the pre-Christmas period had sodium levels that exceeded the WHO benchmarks.
Among these, some approached the upper level of the FDA guidance. The highest sodium ham we found was a product sold as a “reduced sugar” option. While the lower sugar label suggested a healthier option, the sodium was 1308mg per 100g.
UK & Canada
The traditional Christmas main for the UK is turkey. However, many people choose to serve ham or gammon alongside the festive bird.
Gammon is pork leg meat, prepared just like ham and then sometimes smoked after curing. It’s the same as leg ham, the only difference being it’s not sold precooked like ham.
While honey glazed hams are popular, more common is the traditional gammon joint with crackling. This is made by scoring and salting the rind – producing a crispy, crunchy topping. To many Brits, crackling is as essential to their Christmas meal as “pigs in blankets” (sausages wrapped in bacon).
Most of the hams and gammons we found for sale were over the WHO benchmark of 950mg of sodium per 100g. The saltiest ones we found were smoked and unsmoked gammon joints with 1380mg of sodium per 100g – tipping it over the FDA sodium guidance.
The Canadian Christmas dinner looks a lot like the British one: turkey, stuffing and brussels sprouts. And just like Brits, many Canadians will serve a ham with the holiday feast. Maple syrup is a popular glazing ingredient, often mixed with apple cider and orange zest.
A popular type of ham in Canada is the Toupie-style ham. This is a formed ham that’s easy to slice. It’s name is from the French word for “top” as the meat has a conical shape like a spinning top.
Again, most of the hams we found in Canadian shops were over the WHO sodium benchmark, with Toupie-style hams at the saltier end of the spectrum at 1200mg of sodium per 100g.
In Europe, each country has its own preferred ways of preparing the Christmas ham, with many using mustard to coat the meat before cooking.
The premium ham of Germany is the famous Westphalia variety which is smoked over beechwood and juniper. Christmas ham is served with red cabbage and potato dumplings.
In France, ham is baked with spiced sliced apples and pears, brown sugar, dijon mustard, and a splash of cognac.
One of the most distinctive Christmas hams is the Swedish style, or Julskinka. The meat is covered with a mixture of egg yolk and mustard, then coated with breadcrumbs. The result is a crunchy crumb topping.
With so many different varieties, hams across Europe have saltiness in common. Most exceeded WHO sodium benchmarks, and some exceeded the higher FDA guidance. We found hams in France with 1800mg of sodium per 100g – that’s one third more sodium than the upper FDA target.
In the Southern hemisphere, Christmas comes in the summertime. Many Australians will cook their Christmas meals outdoors on the grill, or serve chilled sliced meat. Still, some traditionalists always insist on the glazed Christmas ham with all the trimmings.
The hot weather influence can be seen in Australian Christmas ham recipes. Glazes made with tropical fruit and chilli are popular, as are sides like pineapple and mango. Asian seasoning styles are also widely used, with honey, ginger and soy glazes.
All the hams we looked at in Australian stores exceeded WHO sodium benchmarks, with most sitting between the WHO and FDA sodium targets. A typical ham is around 1250mg of sodium per 100g – over 30% higher than WHO guidance.
Healthier ham with less sodium
While seasonings and cooking styles vary around the world, the saltiness of ham is universal. Nearly all hams and gammons have sodium levels over the WHO benchmarks set to safeguard public health.
But salt is an integral part of ham. Whether the meat is dry cured, or cured by immersion and injection methods, salt is essential to the process.
So what’s the solution to reducing sodium while preserving the function and flavour that salt brings to ham processing?
Saltwell® is an all-natural sea salt with 35% less sodium than regular salt. Using a simple 1:1 replacement with normal salt achieves major sodium reduction in processed meat.
With Saltwell® there’s no compromise. It delivers sodium reduction with a natural salty flavour profile, without the bitter taste of some other lower-sodium ingredients.
In studies of processed meats conducted by leading food producers, technology institutes, and universities from around the world, Saltwell® was tested against a range of commonly used food industry salts. In both sensory and instrumental tests, Saltwell® performed to an excellent standard, with some participants in sensory tests reporting Saltwell improved the flavour of the original meat product.
View the full findings here > Saltwell® Processed Meat Case Study