This article explains the 'uncured' curing, as does this statement from SausageMaker:
NITRATES: THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE TRUTH
As my family and I prepare to celebrate Labor Day with some delicious hot dogs and homemade buns, it’s hard to shake the thoughts about nitrates. It’s a deciding factor for many people when they buy processed meat like bacon or lunchmeat, and it’s been hanging out in the back of my mind since I bought all-beef Hebrew National hot dogs last month.
BUT WHAT EXACTLY IS A NITRATE? WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? IS THERE EVEN A BIG DEAL TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT?!
Buying items labeled “free of nitrates” seems to be all the rage now and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between a food fad (remember when fat-free was the only way to go?) and true health guidance. I did a little bit of research to help ease my mind and found lots of really good information. I’ve summarized it for you here and did my best to slim down the science so that us regular folk can get to the bottom of this hot issue.
In reference to food, “nitrate” really means sodium nitrate, but should really refer to sodium nitrite. While these are two completely different chemical compounds, they are often used interchangeably by those outside of the science realm.
- Sodium nitrate is a type of salt, naturally found in Chile and Peru. It can also be created in a lab.
- Sodium nitrite is also a type of salt, but is not found naturally and is created in a lab or as a byproduct of two other chemical reactions (i.e. when sodium nitrate is added to food and reacts with existing chemicals).
Since sodium nitrate is most often added as a preservative (and then breaks down into sodium nitrite), research efforts are concentrated on the latter.
The original purpose stems from the early 1900s when each of these salts were used to standardize curing – both in the amount needed to cure and in achieving the desired results. In the original research, sodium nitrite was also found to help prevent botulism.
Botulism is a type of poisoning that happens when the microorganism Clostridium botulinum creates the protein botulin. Botulin invades the body where nerve cells meet muscle fibers and then prevent signals from passing through, resulting in paralysis. Heating the food kills the protein and prevents the poisoning from occurring, but consuming cured meat was common in this era as heat sources were not always available.
In addition to preventing the growth of these harmful microorganisms, sodium nitrite was also found to help preserve the color of meat and even prevent the meat from going rancid over longer periods of time.
Imagine a horse and buggy traveling across the country, killing animals as needed for food. Not all the meat could be consumed at one time and refrigeration wasn’t available. Sodium nitrite was used to cure and preserve the meat. The meat stayed red or pink and would be edible without causing sickness for days, possibly weeks.
At the surface level, sodium nitrite seemed to be a miracle preservative. Even today, it is sold as a food additive, although it is dyed bright pink to prevent consumers mistaking it for salt.
Is there concern for mistaking sodium nitrite for salt? Given that sodium nitrite is toxic in large quantities, yes. Research indicates that the toxic level of sodium nitrite for a 143lb person is 71 mg/kg… meaning consumption of this amount would result in death.
However, sodium nitrite occurs naturally in most of the vegetables we consume. For example, curly kale has been clocked in at 302 mg/kg and green cauliflower at 61 mg/kg. Most vegetables fall somewhere between 1.1 and 57 mg/kg.
Does this mean we can die from consuming large amounts of fresh vegetables?
No. The concern for poisoning from nitrites is not a concern in regards to vegetables. In fact, our bodies produce sodium nitrite in the digestive process. Vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals that inhibit the production of nitrosamines, the carcinogenic chemical that sodium nitrite creates when it is charred or overcooked.
Wait a second? Charring or overcooking meat – meat that contains sodium nitrate (or nitrite) – creates a chemical that is directly involved in causing cancer?
So then what about my hot dogs tonight? What will happen to my body if they’re slightly charred? Will my DNA be damaged? Will my cells break down? Will I develop Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or colon cancer?
Maybe. Maybe not.
All meats that contain nitrates (added for curing or preserving) also contain ascorbic acid, a form of Vitamin C, as required by the USDA. Some manufacturers play it extra safe and add alpha-tocopherol (a form of Vitamin E and an antioxidant). Both of these inhibit the formation of nitrosamines and the levels of this carcinogenic chemical are significantly lower than what they were in the 1970’s, when the USDA realized that nitrates could be harmful.
So if the nitrates in meat have been negated with added vitamins, then why are manufacturers making “nitrate-free” or “no added nitrates” meat?
Because we as a society have been scared into believing that all nitrates are bad.
But that’s not true. Remember that almost all vegetables contain some level of nitrates – especially green vegetables (spinach, lettuce, celery, etc.) – and we’re told to eat as much of these as we can because of the benefits they offer.
As people conscious of our health and trying to improve on what we eat, we should be concerned about the amount of nitrates we consume. It is certain that consuming excessive amounts of processed food is bad for our health. Did we not learn this lesson from the documentary “Super Size Me?” Bacon, hot dogs and lunch meat are indeed processed meats and they must be consumed in moderation.
What is considered moderation? The Cancer Prevention Coalition recommends no more than 12 hot dogs in a one month period for children. While I haven’t studied the level of nitrates in every brand of hot dog, lunch meat and bacon, we could err on the side of caution and say that children should not consume more than 12 servings of all of the above types of meat in a one month period. Surely we know not to feed our kids hot dogs every other day, but when totaling the number of processed meat our children consume in a one month period, we could easily reach the 12 serving mark. One hot dog here, a turkey sandwich there… bacon on the weekends. So it’s no wonder why families have flocked to products marked “nitrate-free” or “no added nitrates.” It makes us feel safer when we feed our children (and ourselves) processed meat.
But here’s one last food for thought. In order for this type of meat to survive from production to store shelves and inevitably, to our freezer, there must be some type of preservative. The most common, natural preservative used to achieve the same effect as sodium nitrate is celery juice, or celery juice powder. Both forms of celery juice are chosen for their significantly high, although natural, levels of nitrates. And since celery juice is a plant-based ingredient, and not specifically sodium nitrate, manufacturers are allowed to label the products “nitrate-free” or “no added nitrates.”
What does this mean?
It means that while we purchase meats labeled “nitrate-free” or “no added nitrates” and believe the nitrate level is zero, the actual nitrate level may be far from that.
There’s a decent chance that the nitrate levels in the “free” meat are lower than the meat preserved with pure sodium nitrate, but they’re still not zero. And since celery juice doesn’t prevent botulism from forming, there’s an increased risk of children getting sick from these products if they’re not properly prepared.
Goodness. What’s a health conscious family to do?
Consume all processed meats in moderation. Whether that be traditionally cured meats with sodium nitrite, or meats preserved with celery juice – use discretion and moderation. Be conscious of how many servings our household consumes. Limit purchases so that consumption is limited and choose an alternative if possible (freshly cooked chicken breast sliced for sandwiches instead of processed chicken breast lunch meat). If products with celery juice (any form) are consumed, be sure to cook the product thoroughly.
Simply being conscious of how much we’re consuming is half the battle. Bacon on Saturday, a turkey sandwich on Sunday and hot dogs on Monday… we could easily surpass moderation if we aren’t paying attention.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT NITRATES? DO YOU EAT THEM? AVOID THEM? NEVER HEARD OF THEM?
During a recent phone call with the excellent Elise of simplyrecipes, Elise wished aloud that I would address the nitrite issue directly. “Trader Joe’s carries it! Go look. Is there one near you?”
Indeed there is, and indeed they sell at least two products pitching themselves as a “healthier” bacon because they don’t add sodium nitrite. This is as odious as those sugar laden granola bars trumpeting “No Fat!” on their label—food marketers preying on a confused consumer who has been taught to fear food because of harmful additives (such as the recent, apparently genuine, Red Dye 40 warnings).
Full disclosure if you don’t already know: I am a vocal bacon advocate, and one of my books, Charcuterie, relies on sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate for many of its recipes to cure foods such as bacon, ham and salami, so take all this with, um … no, I’m too pissed off to pun.
Please, if someone can tell me what is wrong with nitrates (in green vegetables) and nitrites (in curing salts and in our bodies, a powerful antimicrobial agent in our saliva, for instance), I invite them to do so here. In the 70’s there were studies finding that at high temps, they could form nitrosamines, cancer causing compounds. I don’t disagree, but burnt things containing nitrite are bitter and unpleasant so we’re not likely to crave them in harmful quatities.
Aspirin is not bad for you, right? Helps with a morning head and achy joints. It’s even taken for its heart benefits. But eat enough of it and it’s toxic.
The fact is, most nitrate we consume comes from vegetables. Nitrate we consume coverts to nitrite in our body, which is a anti-microbial agent in our guts. Sodium nitrite in bacon cures the bacon (more info in my safety concerns for charcutepaloozians) and then converts to nitric oxide, so, while I’m not chemist, I have heard others suggest that you’re not actually consuming any nitrite by the time the bacon gets to you. Again, almost all the nitrate and nitrite in your body comes from veggies. It’s an anti-oxidant. Studies are coming out now saying it’s good for the heart.
A study in the Journal of Food Protection put it this way: “Since 93% of ingested nitrite comes from normal metabolic sources, if nitrite caused cancers or was a reproductive toxicant, it would imply that humans have a major design flaw.”
Bacon is one of the greatest foods on the planet, but the food marketers are going to figure out a way to make you buy their bacon. So what they do is use celery powder and celery juice (note the asterisk on the label above) as their nitrate source (celery is loaded with nitrate) and are therefore are allowed to say no nitrites added. Why go to the trouble? Because we don’t know any better. Can we really be this stupid? I have only one word to say on this beyond an emphatic yes.
Snackwells. (Healthy snack? Must be! Says so right on the package! Da der, da der, da der, down the aisle we go.)
More than a few scientists and physicians read this blog. I’m neither, so I invite anyone qualified to give me evidence that the sodium nitrite added to food in appropriate quantities (which we’ve been doing for millennia) is truly harmful. Please, I want to know. Until then, I’ll hang with the AMA on their nitrites stance: “given the current FDA and USDA regulations on the use of nitrites, the risk of developing cancer as a result of consumption of nitrites-containing food is negligible.”
Don’t be stupid. Don’t let food marketers trick you. Eat natural, minimally processed foods. Eat a balanced diet. Cook it for yourself and the people you care about. Enjoy a little fat. Salt your own fresh food yourself.
But whatever you do, stay away from too much celery. That stuff’ll kill ya.
Callout Comment: Elise Bauer responds: “The thing that irks me is the “no added nitrites or nitrates” as if the fact that they’re adding celery powder means nothing. Or “uncured” even though they are obviously “curing” with celery powder. It is false, misleading, and playing off of people’s food fears to market their cured product that is loaded with nitrates. When I saw a bright pink slab of corned beef for sale at TJ’s, marketed as “uncured” I knew there was a problem.”
If you liked this post on nitrites, check out these other links:
- Dietitian Mary Saucier Choate shares a well-documented, decidedly less heated, assessment in Good or Bad? Nitrates & Nitrites in Food.
- NYT article “Red Meat Miracle, and Other Tales From the Butcher Case.”
- Michael Symon’s Live to Cook, is a great addition to your kitchen.
- The Sustained Chef, Kevin Shinn shares his thoughts on charcuterie, life, and cooking.
- We became human because we began cooking food, my Had Something To Say Video Rant.