How Spam (the Food) Works

Tin of spam
Tin of Spam
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski

Spam is simply processed and cooked pork shoulder and ham preserved in a can. Yet this quintessential American product has inspired both obsession and revulsion (not to mention singing Vikings) ever since the Great Depression. How did Spam become one of the most recognizable brand names in history? What makes it so compelling? In this article, we'll learn all about it.

Spam comes in a rectangular metal can, which allows it to stay fresh, even unrefrigerated, for a very long time. It's a pinkish brick of meat, soft and easily sliceable, that's surrounded by clear gelatin. Because Spam comes precooked, it can be eaten cold directly out of the can, although most people find it more appetizing if it's been cooked or heated. It usually comes in a 12-ounce can, although a 7-ounce can is available.


Spam may be the butt of many jokes, but there's no mystery about where the meat comes from. It's all pork shoulder and ham. Ham comes from the pig's hind legs and rear end. A relatively large amount of salt is added for flavor and to preserve the meat, along with some sugar for flavoring. The only other ingredients are water and a small amount of sodium nitrite, a chemical used to preserve color and prevent the growth of bacteria, specifically Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism.

Next we'll learn how Spam is made.­

Spam Production

Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski Step 2: Slice it up.

Spam is produced in two facilities in North America: one in Austin, Minn., and the other in Fremont, Neb. The highly automated Spam process requires only 13 workers to keep it running smoothly [source: Wyman]. Pig pieces arrive at the plant, where machines remove the pork from the bone and the ham is trimmed by hand. The meat is ground up in 8,000-pound batches, then flash-cooled and blended with the other ingredients in airtight mixers [source: Wyman]. The Spam is piped to a conveyor belt and pumped into the cans, which are sealed shut.

The Spam-filled cans are then moved into a massive cooker. It's six stories tall and holds 66,000 cans of Spam at a time [source: Wyman]. The cans (and the Spam inside the cans) are heated to the point that all bacteria are killed. Then they are washed and allowed to cool. On the way out of the cooker, a plastic label is applied to each can. The cans are boxed, crated and trucked off to stores nationwide. Outside of North America, Hormel licenses the Spam name and recipe to companies that manufacture and sell it in various international markets.


Is­ Spam Good for You?

The short answer: no. Spam is not a healthy thing to eat. A 12-ounce can contains six servings. A single serving holds 16 grams of fat, including six grams of saturated fat. One serving also holds 33 percent of your daily recommended allowance of sodium and a pretty hefty dose of cholesterol. While the reduced sodium and lite versions obviously contain less of the bad stuff, a Spam-heavy diet wouldn't be a good idea.

In fact, some research suggests that Spam (and other processed meats) might increase the risk of cancer. A study by the University of Hawaii found that people who consumed large amounts of processed meat were 67 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. Poultry and dairy consumption was not linked to cancer increases, so fat and cholesterol levels could not be the sole culprit. The researchers suggested that the chemicals used in meat processing may react and form carcinogenic byproducts in the body [source: Nothlings et al]. Sodium nitrite, used in Spam, is one of the most common meat-processing chemicals. Scientists haven't found a definite link between sodium nitrite and cancer, though, so the FDA still considers it safe.

Spam History

Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski Step 3: Batter up!

Spam is made by the Hormel Foods Corporation. The company was founded by George A. Hormel in the late 1890s in Austin, Minn. By the Great Depression, George's son Jay was heavily involved in the company. Hormel did a successful fresh-meat business, but all fresh meats basically looked similar, which made it difficult for Hormel to make its products stand out. The fresh-meat industry was also bound by seasonal changes in the meat supply. To solve these problems, Jay Hormel put his energies into developing canned meats [source: Wyman].

Canning meat introduced its own problems. Heat often caused cell walls to break down and release all of the water in the meat. The result was dry meat and water in a can. Much experimentation was needed to devise the exact canning process that would leave the meat preserved, yet moist. A precise amount of heat and salt must be used, and it's also important for the meat to be mixed and canned in a vacuum [source: Wyman].


Canned ham was a reasonably successful Hormel product, but Jay Hormel wanted to get some use out of an underutilized cut of meat -- pork shoulders. At first, Spam was made entirely of shoulder meat. Hormel introduced the ham/shoulder blend later. Actor Kenneth Daigneau coined the Spam name in a naming contest at a New Year's Eve party [source: Wyman]. Hormel claims that the word is a blend of the words "spiced ham," though Spam lovers and haters have suggested many other meanings and acronyms over the decades. On May 11, 1937, Spam was officially born when Hormel registered a trademark for the name.

By prominently featuring the brand name on the packaging and spending lavishly on advertising, Hormel succeeded in making Spam a household product in the United States. However, it was World War II that cemented Spam's reputation in its home country and introduced the product to consumers around the world. Before the United States entered the war, Spam and other foods were shipped to Allied countries as part of the lend-lease program. When U.S. soldiers went to Europe and the Pacific, they carried Spam in their K-rations [source: Wyman]. Or did they?

Most of the Spam eaten by soldiers was actually government meat that was canned by Hormel and other companies that were under contract to the military. Only a few soldiers received genuine Spam [source: Wyman]. Nevertheless, to the soldiers it was Spam that they came to know and hate. They felt like they had Spam for every meal and ran out of ways to prepare it. The universal dislike -- they wrote songs about how much they hated the stuff -- probably had less to do with the actual taste of Spam than with how often they were forced to eat it.

Regardless of their opinion on Spam during the war, soldiers who returned to the United States when the war was over brought a taste for Spam with them. With the aid of an advertising blitz, Spam sales increased after the war [source: Wyman].

Since then, Spam has grown and evolved. Hormel has introduced new varieties, including Low-Sodium, Lite, Hickory Smoked, Hot & Spicy and Oven Roasted Turkey. The photo on the label has changed, going from a cooked loaf of Spam dotted with cloves to a Spamburger. There have also been changes in the Spam typeface [source:]. Until 1997, the Spam label was lithographed directly onto the cans before cooking. That year, the new "wrap" label was introduced. In 2002, Hormel sold its 6 billionth can of Spam. That's enough cans of Spam to completely fill Giants Stadium in New Jersey, plus enough left over to refill it a third of the way again [source: The Meadowlands].

Spam Culture

Step 4: Fry it up.
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski

Spam has infiltrated pop culture in ways Jay Hormel could never have imagined. Perhaps the most pervasive type of Spam (much to the Hormel Company's chagrin) is the kind that shows up in your e-mail inbox. E-mail spam got its name more or less directly from the Monty Python sketch. Anyone with an e-mail address can surely relate to the wife in the skit and her difficulty coping with a world in which spam seems inescapable. The name could also come from the ubiquity of Spam during World War II. Not only was it in most K-rations, but because of the lend-lease shipment, soldiers who went to European restaurants for a nice meal often found Spam on the menu there, too. Regardless of the specific origin, the idea is the same -- both kinds of spam seem to be everywhere.

Indeed, sometimes Spam (the meat kind) does seem to be everywhere. It would be extremely difficult to find a grocery store in the United States that doesn't carry it. All 50 states enjoy their fair share of processed pork shoulders and ham, but Hawaii leads all states in Spam consumption. At three pounds of Spam per year per Hawaiian, it holds the lead by quite a wide margin [source: Wyman]. In addition to Spam festivals, there are Spam sculpting contests, Spam cooking contests, Spam cookbooks and the SpamMobile, a large blue van shaped vaguely like a can of Spam that tours the country giving out free Spam samples. Since the early '90s, Hormel has also sold an assortment of nonfood Spam products -- underwear, T-shirts, mugs and Christmas ornaments -- for those who simply love the product's kitschy reputation. Comedians regularly resort to Spam jokes, and Spam has popped up in films and TV shows. In fact, in 1995 Hormel sued the makers of a children's movie over the use of an evil piglike character named Spa'am. Hormel lost [source: Wyman].


Tasting Spam

Step 5: Enjoy!
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski

Before writing this article, I'd never eaten Spam before. In fact, I'd always been sort of amazed that anyone ate it, since all I'd ever heard about it were disparaging jokes. I was subconsciously certain that it must be one of the most vile, disgusting foodstuffs ever created, something barely worthy of being considered a "foodstuff" at all.

But I realized that I couldn't very well write about Spam without having eaten any. It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I peeled back the lid of the can of Classic Spam and gave it a cautionary sniff. Then I used a fork to pry out a chunk (the texture is surprisingly soft) and ate some cold. As I expected, Spam tastes more or less like ham, but it's pretty bland and very salty. After a few bites I found I was actually enjoying my first Spam experience. As a further experiment, I cut off a slice and made a Spam and cheese sandwich, heated briefly on the stove. I guess you never know what will happen when you try something new -- I found the sandwich delicious.


The remaining Spam sits in its can (wrapped in aluminum foil) in my fridge. I'll probably have it for lunch tomorrow.

For the record, my dog liked the Spam even more than I did.

To find out more about Spam, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Hormel Foods Corporation. “Spam Timeline.”
  • ­Nöthlings U, Wilkens LR, Murphy SP, Hankin JH, Henderson BE, Kolonel LN. “Meat and Fat Intake as Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer: The Multiethnic Cohort Study.” Journal of the National Cancer Insitute, June 7, 2006.
  • Patten, Margeurite. "Spam The Cookbook." Hamlyn , 2001.
  • The Meadowlands. “Giants Stadium Facts & Figures.”
  • Wyman, Carolyn. "Spam: A Biography." Harvest Books, 1999.