Chemical Cuisine Rating
Purpose: Preservative, coloring, flavoring
Health Concerns: Cancer
Found in: Bacon, ham, frankfurters, luncheon meats, smoked fish, corned beef
Meat processors love sodium nitrite because it stabilizes the red color in cured meat (without nitrite, hot dogs and bacon would look gray) and gives a characteristic flavor. Sodium nitrate is used in dry cured meat, because it slowly breaks down into nitrite. Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of potent cancer-causing chemicals (nitrosamines), particularly in fried bacon. Nitrite, which also occurs in saliva and forms from nitrate in several vegetables, can undergo the same chemical reaction in the stomach. Companies now add ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid to bacon to inhibit nitrosamine formation, a measure that has greatly reduced the problem. While nitrite and nitrate cause only a small risk, they are still worth avoiding.
Several studies have linked consumption of cured meat and nitrite by children, pregnant women, and adults with various types of cancer. In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, concluded that processed meat is carcinogenic to humans. In 2016 CSPI petitioned the USDA to require a warning label on packages of bacon, ham, hot dogs, and other processed meat products to inform consumers that eating those foods can increase the risk of colorectal cancer. All consumers, including in particular pregnant women, would be prudent to avoid those products.
The meat industry justifies its use of nitrite and nitrate by claiming that it prevents the growth of bacteria that cause botulism poisoning. That’s true, but freezing and refrigeration could also do that, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed a safe method using lactic-acid-producing bacteria. The use of nitrite and nitrate has decreased greatly over the decades, because of refrigeration and restrictions on the amounts used. The meat industry could do the public’s health a favor by cutting back even further. Because nitrite is used primarily in fatty, salty foods, consumers have important nutritional reasons for avoiding nitrite-preserved foods.
The labels on some “natural” hot dogs and other cured meats brag about “no added nitrite.” Be skeptical. While those products may not contain added sodium nitrite, they sometimes are made with celery powder or celery juice, which are naturally high in nitrite. Indeed in 2011 The New York Times revealed that the “natural” cured meats could have 10 times as much nitrite as conventional products. The bottom line: nitrite aside, those “no added nitrites” products typically are high in salt and sometimes saturated fat, so they’d be worth eating only occasionally or avoiding entirely.