It's no secret Hawaiʻi loves Spam. But health experts fear its long-term risks
Local foodies and visitors flooded the streets of Waikīkī during last month's annual Spam Jam.
The event attracted more than 25,000 people and over a dozen restaurants serving all delicacies of canned ham. Vendors whipped up everything from a classic Spam musubi to a Monte Cristo, which is a fried Spam and cheese sandwich drizzled in honey and butter.
Hawai‘i residents eat 7 million cans of Spam per year, making it the state with the highest number of consumers per capita in the nation, according to Spam's numbers.
That's five cans per person a year, but experts warn that overconsumption could have negative health consequences.
Spam has become the local darling of Hawai‘i foods, and the reasons why people eat it vary. Several Spam Jam attendees said they enjoy it because it's affordable, easy to make and flavorful.
Brandon Dela Cruz, who works at L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, said it brings up childhood memories.
"Growing up in Hawai‘i, I had Spam when my mom cooked it for breakfast with eggs sunny side up and rice," Dela Cruz said. "That was the perfect combination of heartiness, and it just filled me up for the rest of the day."
Visitors like Jayvee Miranda said it was something he and his family could afford.
"I grew up with Spam just because we couldn't afford something crazy for breakfast, and it was quick and easy, and it was good," Miranda said. "I feel like it's a similar thing here too."
Growing in popularity
Minnesota-based Hormel Foods debuted Spam in 1937. Spam was a World War II ration for soldiers and a nonperishable, inexpensive food at the tail-end of the Great Depression.
Spam has grown in popularity over the years. It's stacked on the shelves of Foodland, 7-Eleven and many restaurants across the state. Even Hawaiʻi McDonald's restaurants include Spam on a breakfast plate alongside eggs and rice.
Barbara Campbell of the Waikīkī Spam Jam said it's popular in some parts of the mainland, adding that people from 31 states attended the festival.
"The great thing about this event is that it's so popular with local residents, too," Campbell said. "We anticipate probably 60% to 70% of attendees were local."
Hormel Foods does a lot of marketing in Hawai‘i, according to Scott Gamble of LH Gamble Company, the state's long-standing broker of Hormel Foods.
He said the average price of Spam is $3.19, although it's reduced to $2.19 when retailers promote it.
"I think that's the reason why Hormel does put a lot of emphasis on trade marketing out here to make sure that we have Spam at a good price in the store," Gamble said. "We see a lot of price sensitivity on Spam. If it's one price or, say, 25 cents higher."
Spam and chronic disease
Spam has six ingredients: pork, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrate.
Studies have shown that processed meat containing nitrates may lead to certain cancers. Nitrates are chemicals put in canned foods to boost their shelf life.
Dr. Loïc Le Marchand, a health expert at the University of Hawaiʻi's Cancer Center, said canned meat is usually rich in animal and saturated fats. He added that high fat intake can be associated with chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and strokes.
He also said overeating canned meat can lead to colon and rectal cancers.
Spam isn't the only meat that has nitrates. Le Marchand said hotdogs and bacon also have the ingredient. However, Spam is the most popular processed meat in Hawaiʻi, he added.
Company officials at Spam say they have been trying to improve their products, according to Gamble. He said that Spam has been offering low sodium and turkey meat varieties.
L&L Barbecue also has plant-based musubi on the menu at select locations.
Le Marchand said Spam is OK to eat in portions, but not every day.
"Spam is really special. It has a cultural value that is different from other processed meat, except hotdogs," he said. "It's not something that should be banned necessarily, but it should be considered a delicacy and eaten on a special occasion."