What Tinned SPAM Is Really Made Of

It's normal to wonder what exactly goes into every can of Spam. Since it's processed and reasonably cheap food, it's not immune to misgivings about the manufacturer possibly making its product out of meat scraps. 

However, Hormel Foods, the company behind the brand, maintains it has been using the same ingredients to create Spam ever since the first few cans were made and sold to the public in 1937: ground pork-shoulder meat mixed with ham, salt, water, sugar, and sodium nitrate. For aesthetic reasons, potato starch was added in 2009 to absorb the layer of gelatin that gets formed as the meat is cooked. It should be noted that the U.K. website for Spam slightly deviates from this list, instead citing additives as the sixth ingredient and naming them as sodium nitrate, sodium ascorbate, and triphosphates. 

Spam's production process is equally simple. The ingredients are mixed for 20 minutes before they get stuffed into cans, which are vacuum-sealed. The cans are cooked and allowed to cool for 3 hours before the Spam label gets attached to them. 

Originally gaining prominence during the Great Depression as a cheap source of protein, Spam became the ration of choice during World War II since it could withstand the long shipping process from the U.S. to American military bases in the Asia-Pacific region. While it was a hit in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Hawaii, and Guam, Spam became stigmatized in the U.S. as poor man's food, symbolizing economic difficulties and war-time rationing. 

Several Asian cuisines have incorporated Spam into their cooking

Spam's introduction to various cultures around the world during World War II led to what sociologist Mire Koikari describes as the product's indigenization as an ingredient for local dishes, especially in tropical countries where refrigeration wasn't present yet at the time. Thus, Hawaii came up with Spam musubi, Koreans created budae-jjigae ("army stew"), the Philippines uses it in Spamsilog, and more. 

The positive global regard for Spam, especially among Asian immigrants, propelled its current resurgence in the U.S., turning around its reputation and expanding its culinary uses beyond simple sliders and sandwiches. Today, it's both a trendy and nostalgic ingredient that's fit to be served in both fast-food and high-end restaurants. According to Hormel Foods, the brand is sold in 50 countries all over the world today, with 12.8 cans of Spam products consumed per second.

However, unlike its ingredients, the origins of Spam's name aren't straightforward. Theories abound: It's an acronym for either Specially Processed American Meat, the unsavory-sounding Scientifically Processed Animal Matter, or "shoulder of pork and ham." Some believe it's a mash-up of the words "spice" and "ham," although the original Spam didn't use spices. Today, it has 15 different flavors, and we've ranked 11 of them. The official account is that the brother of a Hormel executive suggested "Spam" during a product-naming contest at a New Year's Eve party. Whatever the real story is, Spam continues to enjoy cross-cultural importance because of its taste, versatility, and convenience.