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9 False Facts About Spam We've All Believed

Can of Spam
Can of Spam - Bloomberg/Getty Images

Spam is a brand of canned, cooked pork that Hormel Foods has made since 1937. Introduced during America's Great Depression, the simple product found initial success when households turned to Spam as an inexpensive alternative to fresh meat. Aside from a low price point, another characteristic associated with Spam is a long shelf life. Thanks to its canned and processed nature, Spam remains good to eat years after manufacturing, even when kept in hot, humid conditions. This characteristic saw the product gain further popularity during and after World War II, as it was used to feed Allied troops and was given as food aid to starving, war-torn populations.

Given the product's ubiquity, it's no surprise that Spam has been celebrated in popular culture. It played a major role in Monty Python's hit musical "Spamalot" and has even seen its name become a term used to describe emails distributed on a mass scale. Despite such fame, there are many false facts about Spam and its history that are still widely believed. These include accusations that Spam is made from mystery meat and that the product has not changed throughout the years. Thankfully, these so-called facts, and several others, simply aren't true.

Read more: 11 Of The Best Cooking Tips From Bobby Flay

False Fact: Spam Is Yesterday's News

People outside Spam stall
People outside Spam stall - Scott Olson/Getty Images

Spam is a product most people associate with the mid-20th century. Yet, Spam is enjoying a period of popularity unrivaled in its history. In 2021, Hormel Foods reported that Spam had seen seven years of consecutive, record sales growth. In an interview with CNBC during December of that year, CEO Jim Snee said, "We've had to announce new capacity that we're going to bring online in 2023 to meet the demand, so Spam is as strong as it's ever been."

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Spam's cultural capital is reflected elsewhere in the business world. The brand has been involved in several collaborations, including one with Nom Life, a team of two travel and food content creators. The resulting merchandise, which was released in 2023, included Spam-branded hats, sweaters, and T-shirts, clearly marking Spam as a brand that is still grounded in contemporary culture. If further proof was needed, Spam Jam, a Spam-themed festival, is held in Waikiki every year.

Spam's popularity is largely thanks to the esteem in which Asian and Pacific Islander communities hold the product. These communities consume vast amounts of Spam in their home countries; Guam's average annual Spam consumption is 16 cans per capita. What's more, immigrants from these countries have driven up the demand for Spam in other nations, including the United States, especially as dishes from their cuisines, which often feature Spam, become increasingly popular.

False Fact: Its Name Stands For 'Spiced Ham'

Opened Spam can
Opened Spam can - Bloomberg/Getty Images

One of the most enduring false facts about Spam concerns the meaning of its name. There are many theories surrounding the meaning of "Spam," with some suggesting it stands for "Scientifically Processed Animal Matter," "Shoulder of Pork and Ham," and even "Salt Preserves Any Meat." However, the most enduring suggestion is that it is a portmanteau for "Spiced Ham."

The name "Spam" was first used in 1937, although Hormel Foods had been producing canned meat since the 1920s. As the story goes, Hormel Foods needed a name for the canned pork product and offered a $100 prize for whoever came up with the best name. At a party, an actor named Kenneth Daigneau, who was the brother of a Hormel Foods executive, suggested "Spam." Daigneau later admitted he had already come up with the name but just didn't know what to use it on. Despite this, Jay Hormel, CEO of Hormel Foods at the time, stated that the name was indeed a combination of the words "spiced" and "ham." The company's official stance has changed since Hormel made this remark. In the FAQ section of its website, Hormel Foods describes the "spiced ham" meaning as a "popular belief" and states that very few people know the true meaning behind the word "Spam," if there is a meaning, that is.

False Fact: Spam Lasts Forever

Spam display
Spam display - Bloomberg/Getty Images

People who stockpile in case of emergency have often chosen to line their shelves with Spam. This practice has a long history; during the Cold War, Americans were encouraged to stockpile seven days' worth of food and water in case of nuclear warfare breaking out. Spam, as a long-lasting, shelf-stable food, was a popular choice for inclusion at the time. Today, Spam is still included in stockpiles due to the mistaken belief that the processed, canned food lasts forever.

Contrary to common belief, Spam will spoil given enough time, something the brand itself admits. As a result, cans of Spam have a best-before date that is roughly three years after the product was manufactured. That being said, some people claim that Spam is usually safe to consume for as long as five years after it was manufactured. The reason it lasts so long is because it contains a preservative called sodium nitrite, which inhibits the growth of potentially harmful bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum. The inclusion of salt also acts as a further preservative, while the vacuum-sealing of the can also prevents the meat from sweating and oxidizing. Finally, the meat is preserved by being cooked inside the can, killing any germs or bacteria residing in it. While delaying rancidity, these processes cannot halt it completely, and given enough time, Spam will eventually become unfit for human consumption.

False Fact: Spam Is Universally Seen As A Cheap Commodity

Spam in South Korea
Spam in South Korea - Bloomberg/Getty Images

Due to the brand's history, many people in the United States view Spam as a cheap commodity. However, this is not the case in other markets. In South Korea, for example, Spam is associated with wealth and prosperity. As Koo Se-woong, a lecturer of Korean studies at Yale, explained to The New York Times: "Spam maintains a mythical aura on the Korean market for reasons that escape many. Given Spam's introduction to South Korea through the U.S. military, it enjoyed an association with prosperity and nutritiousness during an earlier era."

For these reasons, Spam is often given as a gift in South Korea to celebrate occasions such as the Lunar New Year holiday and Chuseok, a major Korean holiday that's held in mid-autumn. It's been reported that up to 40% of all Spam cans sold in South Korea were given as gifts. During Chuseok, it is estimated that 8 million cans are gifted. Spam is viewed in a similar light in many other places where the United States military has had a presence, including the Philippines.

False Fact: Eating Spam Is Cheaper Than Eating Fresh Meat

Block of spam
Block of spam - KOHUKU/Shutterstock

One of Spam's major selling points when it came out in 1937 was its low price; a 12-ounce can cost $0.25. Today, Spam still enjoys its reputation as a cheap food, even though a 12-ounce can retails for around $4 at Target. (Prices may vary by location.) This works out to roughly $0.33 per ounce, significantly more expensive than Target's Good and Gather brand of ground pork, which is priced at $0.25 per ounce. The fact that the price of cans can be even higher suggests our perception of Spam as a cheap food is plainly false. As chef Cristina Quackenbush said to Serious Eats, "People call it a poor man's food, but it's not really. It's expensive."

Inflation is one of the key causes of the product's increased price, with labor, materials, and shipping all going up in recent years. As a result, Hormel Foods has been forced to increase the price of its products, and some markets have seen dramatic surges in the price of Spam. In the United Kingdom, Spam's price increased by 20% during 2023 alone.

False Fact: Chefs Turn Their Noses Up At Spam

Spam musubi on plate
Spam musubi on plate - richardernestyap/Shutterstock

While some Americans still view Spam as a lowbrow food, many chefs are using it in a variety of restaurants across the country. In fact, this practice has been going on for so long that the inclusion of Spam on a restaurant menu should no longer be surprising, let alone newsworthy.

One of the things American chefs love about Spam is its ability to transport customers to their childhood, especially if their family has emigrated from places such as South Korea or the Philippines. In restaurants that celebrate the cuisines of these countries, Spam is often used to create foods such as South Korea's budae jjigae or, in Hawaiian restaurants, Spam musubi, a dish of Spam and sticky rice encased in nori. Serving Spam in these restaurants is almost a foregone conclusion, as chef Crystalyn Costa plainly illustrated to Serious Eats: "You can't have a Hawaiian restaurant without having Spam. That's just impossible to do. We made the decision that we were going to serve it, even if people think it's weird."

Other restaurants utilize Spam because it is so versatile, producing dishes such as Spam fries and Spam katsu curry. Fine dining chefs have also cooked with Spam in innovative ways for years, as exemplified by chef Vinny Dotolo's famous Spam and foie gras loco moco that was served at Animal in Los Angeles back in 2009.

False Fact: Spam Was The Only Canned Meat Eaten During WWII

A can of Treet
A can of Treet - 5 Minute Eats/YouTube

World War II is often seen as the primary cause of Spam's global popularity. Approximately 100 million pounds of Spam were distributed to soldiers during the war, resulting in massive exposure for the brand. That being said, Spam was not the only canned meat bought and distributed by the military during World War II, with brands such as Armour and Company also producing millions of cans for military personnel. These even included Treet, a product similar to Spam.

The reason why Spam gained global popularity at this time and other canned meat brands didn't was because Spam was the most famous brand of the lot, having been on the market longer. As a result, all other canned meat brands were referred to as Spam, even if they weren't, boosting Spam's profile, for better or for worse.

These products, and other canned meals including pork and beans and chicken and vegetables, always formed part of American soldiers' C-Rations, as UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Joseph Glatthaar highlighted to History: "You're going to have a main course — like franks and beans — some cigarettes, some canned fruit, some chewing gum, chocolate bars, some instant coffee, some toilet paper. There's some processed cheese and some biscuits." Given that soldiers ate Spam -- or what they referred to as Spam -- on an almost daily basis, it's not hard to see how the product became an American, and indeed global, phenomenon.

False Fact: Spam Is Made From Mystery Meat

Employees making Spam
Employees making Spam - Bloomberg/Getty Images

Another often-touted false fact is that Spam is made from a variety of mysterious meats. In reality, Spam set itself apart during the 20th century by refusing to use the variety of subpar cuts -- such as lips and snouts -- employed by other canned meat producers. The brand chose to use the underutilized pork shoulder instead. This is the cut still used to make Spam today, alongside a small amount of ham as well as salt, sugar, water, potato starch, and sodium nitrite.

All of these ingredients are ground together and heated for 20 minutes before being packed into cans and vacuum-sealed. The cans are then placed in a large cooker before being immersed in hot water and, in this manner, cooked.

This ingredient list and production process is not much different from how many other, more respected products are produced. With this in mind, the fact many Americans deride Spam seems hypocritical. Chef Nicole Ponseca highlighted this when interviewed by Serious Eats: "The most common thing non-Filipinos ask is 'Why are you guys eating mystery meat?' I always say, 'Why do you eat bologna or mortadella?'"

False Fact: The Product Has Not Changed Over The Years

Can of Spam Tocino
Can of Spam Tocino - borgibogs/X, formerly known as Twitter

There is a misconception that the Spam brand has not innovated at all in recent decades. This is false. The base recipe for Spam was changed in 2009, when potato starch was added to improve the product's appearance. What's more, Hormel Foods has consistently released new Spam flavors over the years.

Many different flavors of Spam are now available. These include products that have been designed to include less sodium or fat, as well as those that have been given extra flavor. An example of the latter is a maple syrup-flavored Spam that was released in the summer of 2023. Other flavored versions include Spam Teriyaki, which has been designed with making Hawaiian Spam musubi in mind. Spam Tocino, a spiced version, has also been created for the Filipino market. Both of these products prove that Spam is using innovation to lean into its massively multicultural identity.

Read the original article on Daily Meal.