One of my nutrition professors in graduate school said that when she served hot dogs at her five-year old son’s birthday party she also doled out Vitamin C tablets. The thought was that the chewables would offset the impact of the nitrates in the weenies, an additive some research has linked to cancer.

I haven’t taken to handing out supplements at children’s parties, but I do watch my family’s consumption of meats cured with sodium nitrate: salami, ham, prosciutto, bacon, sausage, bologna, hot dogs, and the like. Aside from the nitrates, these foods tend to be high in sodium and fat, another reason to keep intake in check. My kids (and my husband) love all of these fatty, flavorful foods. If they were the ones managing the larder, bacon and sausage would quickly be bumped from “once in a while” status to “everyday food”.

Over the past several years, I’ve been pleased to find cured meats marked “nitrate free,” a label that made me feel a bit better about buying them. Looking back, I have to admit there was a little voice in my head saying, “but how could these foods be made without nitrates?”

I should have listened to that voice because these foods aren’t made without nitrates at all. It turns out hot dogs and other meats labeled “uncured” or “no nitrates or nitrites added” are just as full of the preservative as standard supermarket brands. That’s right: thanks to some funky USDA labeling laws your “uncured” Neiman Ranch dogs have nitrates just the same as conventional products. The difference is that “natural” or “organic” products derive the nitrates from food sources as opposed to synthetic ones. Nitrates are naturally present in many foods, most notably, in vegetables. Celery juice is the most common non-synthetic sodium nitrate used for curing.

As far as the human body is concerned, however, a nitrate is a nitrate. If the additive is indeed linked to cancer, it doesn’t much matter if it comes from a vegetable or a laboratory. To confuse matters more, there is a lot of debate about whether or not nitrates even cause cancer. The American Cancer Society holds firm that the evidence is there, but plenty of researchers question the data.

So where does that leave us and our shopping lists? It simply makes us more informed consumers. I will continue to cook with cured meats as I always have: in moderation. Because they are such flavor powerhouses, a little can go a long way such as the prosciutto in this pizza recipe here and sausage in this cabbage recipe here. And I’ll continue to reach for the organic brands because, rational or not, naturally derived nitrates seems intuitively better, and that labeling also ensures no artificial colors or flavors.

Perhaps, just to cover ourselves, we should take a cue from my nutrition professor and think about working Vitamin C alongside our charcuterie. Orange slices in a salad with bacon bits, tomatoes on a mortadella sandwich, or chewables for your summer weenie roasts.

For more details about the labeling issue, the New York Times did a bang up job on the topic which you can find here.

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