“Don’t count on the label to help much. Those pricey ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ hot dogs often contain just as much or more of the cancer-linked preservatives nitrate and nitrite as that old-fashioned Oscar Mayer wiener.” –“What’s Inside the Bun?” The New York Times, July 1, 2011
One of the more frequently asked questions in the Meat Department relates to nitrates and nitrites, specifically in cured meats such as bacon, sausages and lunch meats. This hit a spike in the middle of last summer, when the New York Times ran an article which ended up being kind of a hit job on cured meats as well as natural foods—just in time for your Fourth of July cookout. Instead of just the simple “Find out what’s in your refrigerator that’s going to kill you!” News-at-Ten approach, the NYT threw some shade towards the natural and organic foods movement with an added measure of (the increasingly more common) “Look how these fancy foods are trying to fleece the public with buzzwords and benefits that aren’t true.”
Well here are the facts as we see them: Nitrates (NO3) and Nitrites (NO2) are nearly the same chemical compound (both containing nitrogen and oxygen) and naturally occurring elements in soil. Plants need both in order to thrive and microorganisms in the soil convert the nitrogen into nitrates, which are then able to promote growth and photosynthesis.
Nitrates and nitrites have been used for hundreds of years to preserve fish, meats and cheeses thus preventing spoilage, botulism and bacterial growth. Nitrates go after bacteria and shut them down, resulting in nitrites that are actually doing the “curing” of the meats. They also give cured meats their characteristic pinkish-red color and “smoky” flavor, both of which are appealing to the consumer. In the modern era this is accomplished by sodium nitrite (NaNO2) also known as “pink salt.” Once better refrigeration came about, it reduced the need for sodium nitrite in meats and fish but consumers often preferred the products as they had been and manufacturers liked the longer shelf life and fresher appearance.
The levels of nitrates went relatively unchecked until the 1970s when concerns began to arise about the chemical reaction the nitrates have when combined with protein in an acidic environment (the stomach) or heated to a certain temperature as in frying bacon. At these times the nitrates/nitrites combine with the amino acids in the meat and form N-nitrosamines, a carcinogenic compound believed to cause cancer. The USDA responded by limiting the amount of sodium nitrite that can be used for processing purposes. As a result, nitrites/nitrates cannot exceed 200 ppm (parts per million).
So why are cured meats being targeted as having possibly harmful levels of nitrites when they naturally occur in much higher concentrations in many vegetables such as celery, spinach, salad greens, carrots, turnips, radishes and beets? After all, nearly 93% of the nitrites that we ingest on a daily basis are derived from vegetables and water whereas less than 5% come from cured meats. The simple answer is that the presence of vitamins C, D and E in these vegetables work to inhibit the conversion of nitrites to nitrosamines in the stomach. Consequently, vegetables containing normal levels of nitrates are quite safe and even help reduce the risk of cancer as well as lower blood pressure and kill germs in your mouth, preventing odor and infections (nitrates are secreted back into your saliva after you absorb them). These vegetables are best grown organically and without the use of fertilizers that contain excessive nitrates in order to increase plant growth rate and size.
Recognizing that the present-day consumer would like to be able to still enjoy certain cured meats but without the chemical additive of sodium nitrite and its link to certain cancers, some companies like Applegate and Niman Ranch have been using naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites from sources such as celery and sea salt. They have also been pushing the federal government for more truthful labeling that would allow them to tell consumers clearly that some products contain nitrate and nitrite, just from natural rather than synthetic sources. Currently the rules require products such as Applegate’s (who derive the preservatives from natural sources) to place the words “Uncured” and “No nitrates or nitrites added” on the label even though they are cured and do contain the chemicals, which we all admit is kind of confusing. The distinction is that they are sourcing naturally rather than chemically, potentially reducing the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines. The spirit in which this is being done is much the same as sourcing red food coloring from beets rather than Red #2.
The New York Times article quoted above would have you believe that the “Uncured” and “No nitrates or nitrites added” provision clearly printed on the packaging was in order to swindle natural foods buyers into being charged more for no actual benefit, when actually the purpose of that USDA-mandated verbiage is to act as a warning or skull and crossbones to consumers. According to Applegate’s website:
“The USDA requires that we put this claim on our packaging to let consumers know that the product was cured without sodium nitrite, which is the industry standard. Traditionally, products that weren’t cured with sodium nitrite were not considered safe, so the claim served as a warning to consumers that the product was not cured using the recommended method. The USDA defines an uncured product as one that has been preserved without the use of synthetic sodium nitrite. Since Applegate uses the nitrites derived from celery juice and sea salt to cure its hams, bacon and hot dogs, the USDA requires our labels to say “Uncured” and “No Nitrites or Nitrates Added” to let consumers know that the product was not cured using the standard industry practice. Applegate has recommended clearer language in the past, which unfortunately was rejected by the USDA. Applegate is currently filing a formal petition with the USDA with recommendations for improved language on labels regarding nitrites.”
So those “Uncured” and “No nitrates or nitrites added” labels on these natural food products are actually designed by the USDA to favor the Oscar Mayers and Hormels in the meat aisle by saying “Don’t trust those natural foods upstarts that aren’t using safe curing compounds like sodium nitrite! Why, they’re using naturally derived nitrates which no one has used in large-scale food production for nearly a hundred years!” Y’know…back then when bread was made with only flour, water and salt. When livestock were allowed to graze. Before steroids and antibiotics. Crazy times.
So what are you as the consumer supposed to take away from all of this? Well, like Julia Child always stressed…moderation. No one in the Meat Department is suggesting that cured meats deserve their own section on the food pyramid. Many of us enjoy bacon, hot dogs and sausages from time to time but not in the frequency that you would partake in whole grains, fruits or vegetables. They are to be enjoyed occasionally and ideally accompanied by foods rich in vitamins C (tomatoes, kiwi, peppers, mangoes, papayas, oranges) and E (most nuts, tomatoes, olive oil). The antioxidants from these vitamins will reduce the formation of nitrosamines, and makes eating nitrites a negligible health risk. For truly uncured fresh sausages we offer a variety in our service case at the Willy West Meat Department made with our own Willow Creek pork, Bell & Evans chicken and turkey and Black Earth Meats beef and lamb. And let’s be honest—we live in Wisconsin…do you really think you can make it through the whole summer without having a sausage?