Charcuterie boards are all the rage for Valentine’s Day. But do they also come with health risks?

Love is in the air, and Valentine’s Day-themed charcuterie boards are taking over Instagram. These festive platters turn deli meats into roses and hearts, offering a romantic twist to your nibbling experience. (Though zero judgment if you want to enjoy these boards solo too.)

Before you fully embrace this culinary trend, however, experts recommend a touch of caution. After all, there’s nothing less romantic than getting a nasty bout of food poisoning and missing out on all the other delectable treats popular around this time of year. Here’s what you need to know.

Are charcuterie boards healthy?

While charcuterie boards can include a range of bites, from cheeses to nuts and crackers, we’re focusing today on the star of the show: the deli meats. Deli meats provide protein, which is great for crushing your hunger and helping to build and maintain muscle, but experts warn that these types of precooked or cured meat slices also come with a not-so-great sidekick: a ton of sodium.

“Cured meats are treated with salt, nitrates and nitrites prior to the curing process,” Dr. Kirsten Bechtel, a professor of emergency medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “While this makes the meat more shelf stable and provides great flavor, a single ounce of cured meats can have up to 600 mg of sodium.”

Since the recommended daily allowance is no more than 2,300 mg of sodium for a healthy adult, it’s possible you could rack up that amount with just 4 oz. of cured meat from a charcuterie board, Bechtel points out. While sodium is necessary for our bodies to function, too much sodium can increase blood pressure and put us at risk for heart disease.

Jamie Pronschinske, a registered dietician at the Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse, Wis., tells Yahoo Life that you can still snack on a charcuterie board — just add some different ingredients in order to balance out your sodium intake. “Adding fresh fruits and vegetables or using unsalted nuts on the board can help to reduce the sodium content,” she says. This can also help you balance out your protein and fat intake with fiber, allowing you to stay satiated longer.

Are charcuterie boards safe to eat?

There are inherent risks that come with consuming deli meat, says Pronschinske, including encountering bacteria that can cause foodborne illness, such as listeria. “Deli meats, cold cuts and dry sausages can be contaminated with listeria when they are made or prepared at facilities where listeria persists,” she explains. Although cooking, fermenting or drying kills germs, these meats can get contaminated afterward if they touch surfaces with listeria. Refrigeration does not kill listeria, but reheating to 165°F or until steaming hot before eating will kill any germs that may be on these meats, Pronschinske says.

It’s not just a hypothetical risk. In 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of a listeria outbreak linked to deli meats, which left one dead and 13 people hospitalized. There was also one miscarriage after a pregnant person became ill, which is why some doctors suggest those who are pregnant avoid certain foods like deli meats due to increased risk of foodborne illnesses that can affect the fetus.

“Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and those with weak immune systems should refrain in general from eating charcuterie boards due to the risk of cross contamination or contamination of food by listeria,” says Bechtel. In addition to listeria being found in deli meat, she shares, the bacteria has also been linked to unpasteurized cheese, which may find itself on your charcuterie board.

It’s not just listeria you need to worry about. Earlier this year, more than 11,000 pounds of charcuterie meat was recalled across eight states due to a potential salmonella contamination. Salmonella is a type of bacteria that can cause food poisoning in humans, and contamination typically occurs through the consumption of contaminated food. Charcuterie meats were also linked to this type of bacteria in 2021, when an outbreak infected 24 people.

How to avoid foodborne illness when you’re eating charcuterie

Charcuterie boards are meant to be picked at, often over a longer period of time than your typical served meal. That can add some additional risk to eating the food.

Bechtel recommends that meats, cheeses and produce be refrigerated for at least two hours before being displayed on a charcuterie board to ensure that they are cold enough before being consumed. That’s because the “danger zone” for food temperature is breached when refrigerated food has a temperature over 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That can occur, Bechtel explains, if a charcuterie board is out at room temperature for more than two hours.

“I would replace items on a charcuterie board if it has been out for more than two hours,” Bechtel says, as naturally occurring bacteria, especially in meats and cheeses, can rapidly multiply when the food temperature is greater than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If the air temperature is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or above, food on a charcuterie board will be over 40 degrees Fahrenheit in an hour — which likely isn’t a huge concern for this February holiday, but is worth knowing.

If you are eating a charcuterie board where the meats have been folded into fun shapes, you should ensure that the person crafting the board has properly washed their hands. Often, foodborne illnesses come from cross-contamination with fecal matter, which can be avoided with proper hygiene.

Ultimately, there’s no reason to skip the charcuterie board this Valentine’s Day, especially if you follow the health and food safety tips you would any other day of the year.

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