What Is Spam Made Of?

It's time to take the mystery out of this meat.

illustration of a can of spam on a two-tone yellow background
Photo: Erin Keeffer/Dotdash Meredith

You either love it or you loathe it. But either way, Spam is the brand name for a canned meat product that's widely recognized around the world. And yet, for all its enduring popularity, Spam remains something of an enigma. Today we're taking the mystery out of the meat and answering your top questions. Read on to learn what Spam is made of, Spam's complex history, the best ways to cook with Spam, and what "Spam" even means.

What Is Spam Made Of?

Spam contains six ingredients: a mixture of pork and ham meat, salt, water, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrite, a food preservative added to bacon, hot dogs, cured meats, sausage, and smoked fish. Aside from adding potato starch in the 1990s, Spam's recipe is relatively unchanged.

What Does "Spam" Stand For?

"Spam" doesn't really have any meaning — it's simply a product name. "There was a Christmas party in late 1936 and the idea of holding a raffle or competition for who could come up with the name of this new product was put forward," says Brian Lillis, group brand manager for Spam at Hormel Foods. "Kenneth Daigneau, one of the attendees' relatives, was at the party and came up with the idea of Spam."

Daigneau won a $100 gift, and the name stuck. Lillis says it's unclear whether "Spam" had any deeper meaning. "No one knows what exactly went into the process of creating it, but we're glad that they did," he says.

The History of Spam

Spam was created in Minnesota by Hormel Foods in 1937. The early 20th century saw a surge of advancement in food preservation, with calamities such as World War I and the Great Depression heightening the need for affordable, accessible, shelf-stable food — especially protein.

"Refrigeration, conveyor lines and other industrialization practices allowed more centralized processing of livestock, and 'meat packing' in cities like Kansas City and Chicago," says Lora Vogt, Curator of Education and Interpretation at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. "With efficiencies in supply, companies could more readily, and on a large-scale, canned meat — among other forms of production like curing."

At that time, despite its quality, pork shoulder was an inexpensive cut of meat. With Spam, Hormel seized the opportunity to create a quality canned good for consumers that could be utilized on any given night.

"They were looking for a way to create a food item that was both a versatile and affordable protein option for families," Lillis says.

It wasn't until World War II, however, that Spam became known on a global scale. Hormel sent more than 100 million pounds of food around the world to help feed troops — that's a lot of Spam. "As Spam was sent to those regions, there was almost an inherent indoctrination into the local cuisine and local culture," Lillis says. This was especially true in Eastern Asia and the Pacific; the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, and, of course, Hawaii, all adapted Spam into their foodways.

Today, Spam fans can immerse themselves in the history and lore of their beloved meat product at the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. And for serious Spam devotees, there are more than a dozen different Spam flavors for you to track down and try, including teriyaki, jalapeño, and hickory smoke.

Get the Recipe: WWII Spam and Egg Sandwich

What Does Spam Taste Like?

Classic Spam has a sweet, salty, savory flavor that lies somewhere between a hot dog and bacon. It has a spongy texture that's similar to sausage patties or bologna. Spam is already fully cooked, but when you use it in a recipe, the sugars in the product can caramelize to make it crusty on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside.

How to Cook With Spam

We can't ignore Spam's additional secret to success: versatility. Spam can simply be fried and used in a sandwich, but the canned pork's global impact means there are myriad ways to utilize it.

Get the Recipes:

Hungry for more? Check out our collection of SPAM recipes.

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