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What Is Corned Beef, and Is It Healthy?

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Corned beef is a popular year-round deli staple. It’s also synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day.

No doubt it’s tasty, but is corned beef a healthy meat?

This article will look into how corned beef is made and whether it’s healthy or should be reserved for an occasional holiday treat.

How is corned beef made?

First, there’s no corn involved in making corned beef. Corn refers to the large grains of rock salt used to brine brisket, the cut of beef most commonly used to make corned beef.

Brisket comes from a cow’s lower breast area and is tough and fatty. Thus, you have to brine or marinate it to tenderize the meat and then simmer it.

Corned beef brine also contains sugar and spices like allspice, coriander, peppercorn, mustard seeds, and bay leaf, which further flavor the beef.

The brining process, as well as the slow braising of the tough brisket, results in very tender and flavorful meat.

Corned beef is enjoyed in many ways, including as a breakfast hash, a Reuben deli sandwich, or the traditional St. Patrick’s Day dinner.

Nutritional content

Corned beef is full of protein and fat, and it’s a good source of many vitamins and minerals.

A 3-ounce (85-gram) cooked portion of corned beef provides:

  • Calories: 213
  • Protein: 15 grams
  • Fat: 16 grams
  • Carbs: 0 grams
  • Sodium: 827 mg, 34% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Cholesterol: 83 mg, 28% of the DV
  • Selenium: 27.9 mcg, 40% of the DV
  • Vitamin B12: 1.6 mcg, 27% of the DV
  • Iron: 1.86 mg, 10% of the DV

Note that a serving of corned beef provides more than one-third of the DV for sodium. It’s difficult to make a low sodium version of corned beef because the brine salt helps tenderize the meat.

Most commercially prepared corn beef also contains sodium nitrite as an additive. It contributes to the sodium content but mainly functions as a preservative for processed meats (3).

Sodium nitrite helps maintain freshness by limiting the growth of bacteria that cause foodborne illness. When it reacts with the beef proteins, nitrite turns the meat its characteristic pink color.

Homemade corned beef that is brined with regular pickling salt instead of sodium nitrite is gray in color.

Health effects

Corned beef is an excellent source of protein, vitamin B12, and iron. Individually, these nutrients play many roles in your body, but they all collaborate to make healthy red blood cells.

It’s also high in selenium, which is essential for creating your thyroid hormones. It’s also needed for making DNA, and it functions as an antioxidant to protect it from damage.

While it may have some health benefits, corned beef is both red meat and processed meat. Processed meats have been preserved or flavored through salting, curing, fermenting, or smoking.

Some large population studies suggest diets high in red, processed meat may contribute to a higher risk of health problems and death.

A study that followed more than 81,000 people for 8 years found that eating more red meat, especially processed meat, was linked with a higher risk of death.

The high amounts of sodium in processed meat may also raise blood pressure in some people. Both of these can contribute to a higher risk of heart disease.

Furthermore, cooked red meat is a source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heterocyclic amines, and nitrosamines.

These are all linked with a higher risk of cancer and are formed when meat is cured or cooked to high temperatures, such as 302–662°F (150–350°C), with greater amounts at 572°F (300°C) or higher.


In 2015, the cancer division at the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meats as a carcinogen — something likely to cause cancer in humans.

Experts looked at more than 800 studies and found that eating about 2 ounces (50 grams) of processed meat each day may increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

The WHO also classified red meat as a probable carcinogen, as observational studies have suggested that eating more red meat is linked with an increased risk of colorectal, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.

It’s a good idea to limit the amount of processed meat you eat to just once in a while. That goes for corned beef and other processed meats like hot dogs or bacon.

The bottom line

Corned beef is processed red meat made by brining brisket in a salt and spice solution to flavor and tenderize it.

While it provides protein and nutrients like iron and vitamin B12, corned beef is relatively high in fat and sodium. It’s also a source of certain compounds that may increase your risk of cancer.

Processed meats like corned beef are categorized as potential carcinogens, so you may want to limit the amount of corned beef you eat to just once in a while.

Originally published on Healthline February 23, 2021. Written by Anne Danahy, MS, RDN. Medically reviewed by  Kathy W. Warwick, R.D., CDE.  Republished with permission.

Photo credit: rudisill/Getty Images