The Truth About Nitrates

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.

Photo credit: istock

Comments

07.24.2011 at 5:35 PM #

Erwin Martling

I simply want to mention I am new to blogging and really enjoyed you’re blog. Likely I’m going to bookmark your blog post . You definitely have very good well written articles. Thanks a lot for sharing with us your website.

07.24.2011 at 5:35 PM #

katiemorford

Thank you. Much appreciated.

11.13.2011 at 11:55 AM #

job boards

Some truly marvelous work on behalf of the owner of this web site, great subject matter.

11.30.2011 at 4:52 AM #

Starla

Thank you so much! I am so glad I subcribed to your website! We keep Applegate Farms in our home for kid’s lunches. To read in the linked article a quote from the company’s president that their products have just as much nitrate as other brands….ugh!

11.30.2011 at 4:52 AM #

katiemorford

It’s a little disconcerting, I know.

06.26.2012 at 6:26 PM #

Kristina

I appreciate your blog, however, nature always outsmarts the lab. There are studies that have proven supplements with Vitamin E are linked to a higher incidence of cancer, but I wouldnt go so far as to say that blueberries or sunflower seeds are carcinogens. Bottom line is nature and synthetics are two totally different things.

06.26.2012 at 6:26 PM #

katiemorford

Point taken!

04.26.2019 at 10:40 PM #

Jared

A good comparison regarding the misleading FDA food labeling criteria of “nutritional information” is milk vs cultured dairy products. Milk carbs/sugars (lactose), are converted into lactic acid in most cultured/fermented dairy products like sour cream, buttermilk, kefir and buttermilk. Yet the FDA doesn’t recognize this transformation at all. That’s why the carb/sugar content of 2% buttermilk is basically labeled the same as 2% milk, even though it’s actually significantly (if not entirely) sugar/lactose free!
As a fermented meat and sausage maker, I think the FDA is also basically clueless when it comes to meat curing.
Yes, I agree that excessive consumption of nitrates and nitrites can be unhealthy (whatever the source), but I also think they can actually be considered “healthy”, under the right circumstances.
Personally, I don’t think nitrates/nitrites should ever be added to fresh, frozen or cooked foods. However, I believe that they are essential to the process of curing “raw” foods, especially meats.
I don’t currently have a way of determining the nitrate/nitrite content of my finished hams and salamis, but I’m very confident that dry aging them significantly reduces the free radicals.

07.19.2019 at 10:01 AM #

Karen G

I just read your article regarding nitrates/nitrites and the correlation with cancer. I have no answers. Just as much research pointing in one direction points in the other, and I don’t have any control over what companies put into processed foods just which vegetables I choose to buy with transparency of growing methods. I found these studies interesting to say the least. I also have cardiovascular issues so this was quite of interest to me. As a mom I find presenting healthy options confusing at times when research points in both directions. I just pray, eat in moderation, and trust what is.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7585121
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30881924

07.19.2019 at 10:01 AM #

katiemorford

Hi Karen, I agree, it’s hard to sort through all the noise and many opinions. We all just need to do what feels right for us and our families. Focusing on mostly whole foods is a great starting point. Thanks for the comment.

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