What Is SPAM Made Of? Everything to Know About the Canned Favorite

published Oct 29, 2023
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Overhead view of two cans of spam, one open and one closed, on its side.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Prop Stylist: Tom Hoerup

When it comes to canned meats, one brand has made a cultural impact and garnered a reputation for its culinary quirkiness. Yes, we’re talking about SPAM, a processed pork product conveniently packaged in 12-ounce cans. 

SPAM can be found just about anywhere, be it supermarkets, convenience stores, and even gas stations. And with its iconic blue and yellow design, it’s hard to miss. Since its invention, SPAM has sold over 9 billion cans in 48 countries around the world

SPAM has become a staple of any working-class American family for its accessibility, affordability, and versatility. But it is perhaps one of the divisive food products you could find on the shelves. Some find it love the six-ingredient luncheon meat, while others dislike it, as it’s high in fat, sodium, and preservatives. To learn more, here’s a brief history on what SPAM is made of and the ways to prepare and cook it. 

Quick Overview

What Is SPAM and What Is It Made Of?

Spam is a brand of canned, processed pork product made of pork with ham, salt, water, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrate. It’s a versatile ingredient that is used in various cuisines.

Origins of SPAM

SPAM was created in Austin, Minnesota, on July 5, 1937, when manufacturer Hormel Foods Corporation wanted to introduce a new meat product that would utilize pork shoulder as its main ingredient. 

Pork shoulder, aka picnic shoulder, is a cut that has more muscle than fat. It comes from the triangle-shaped bottom of the pig’s shoulder, just about the front leg. Back then, it wasn’t a popular cut, but Hormel Foods’ founder Jay Hormel saw an opportunity to use unwanted meat and make something that would sustain people during the Great Depression

As canned meat was introduced in the midst of the Great Depression, its longer shelf life meant people could easily store it. SPAM wasn’t only convenient, it also became a cheap source of protein for people to rely on. SPAM became a popular food item until World War II, as delivering fresh meat out to the front proved difficult. In fact, over 100 million pounds of SPAM were shipped over to feed US soldiers across the continents. 

The Meaning Behind the Name SPAM

The origins of the name SPAM are quite murky, but a popular belief is that the name is a contraction of the two words, “spiced ham”. Rumors circulate that SPAM stands for goofy acronyms, such as “Scientifically Produced/Processed Animal Matter” or “Specially Processed American Meat” according to Eater and Smithsonian Magazine. It has also been speculated to be an acronym for “Shoulder of Pork and Ham”. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Prop Stylist: Tom Hoerup

What is SPAM made of? 

SPAM is a blend of ground pork shoulder and ham hock, mixed with salt, water, modified potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrate — a common preservative used in cured meats. 

The mixture is transferred to cans, vacuum-sealed, and cooked inside the cans. After cooling, the cans are ready for sale. Natural gelatin is formed during cooking in its tins on the production line.

SPAM has now produced more flavors, including maple flavored, with real Hormel bacon, and with tocino seasoning. Some contain different meats, and there’s also the “lite” and less sodium versions.

Use of SPAM in Different Cuisines 

Spam became a popular food item at the end of WWII, when the US Army took their diet with them as they were stationed at military bases in Hawaii, Okinawa, and the Philippines, according to Brittanica. Spam was incorporated in regional cuisines of the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. 

There are many ways to prepare Spam. You can slice it up and pan-fry it, chop it, grill it, bake it, or eat it straight from the can since it’s already pre-cooked. In Hawaii, the home of the highest SPAM consumption per capita in the world, SPAM fried wontons and SPAM musubi are popular. According to the brand’s website, Hawaii residents consume 7 million pounds of SPAM each year. 

In the Philippines, “Spamsilog” is a breakfast item, eaten with sinigang (garlic rice) and fried eggs. In Japan, Spam is added to ramens or made into onigiri, also called Okinawan Spam musubi. Another local dish is goya chanpuru, stir-fried with tofu, Spam, bacon, egg, bittermelon, and pork belly.

SPAM Recipes