Health Threat of Nitrates: Nitrites in Cured Meats
Environmental Nutrition Newsletter
Environmental Nutrition Newsletter
Q. What's the latest with nitrates and nitrites in cured meats?
A. Nitrates and nitrites in meats are still a topic of hot debate. Nitrate, made up of nitrogen and oxygen, occurs naturally in the diet. More than 70 percent of the nitrates we consume are from vegetables, which draw nitrates from the soil. Nitrates we ingest also come from nitrogen-contaminated drinking water (21 percent) and meat products (six percent.)
Nitrites give cured meats like hot dogs, ham, sausage and bacon their characteristic pink color and sharp flavor. When added to meat, nitrates break down into nitrites. Nitrates can be digested by the body and removed as waste with no harmful effects. But nitrates can be converted to nitrites in the stomach, especially if the pH of the gastric fluid is high. And these nitrites can react with food proteins to form cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines. These compounds can also be created in meats cured with nitrite, particularly when cooked at high temperatures, such as when frying.
Several studies link the consumption of nitrates/nitrites and cured meat with certain cancers and conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, though there has been conflicting evidence. Pregnant women, infants and children seem to be at higher risk for nitrate/nitrite exposure.
On the meat processing front. Meat processors defend the use of nitrites as a preservative and to prevent bacterial growth. Yet, current improvements in production and food storage lessen the potential for food-borne illness. And restrictions imposed by the
Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and erythorbic acid (a compound similar to vitamin C) are commonly and effectively added to meats to inhibit the formation of nitrosamines. Natural and organic meats cured with ingredients such as sea salt, raw sugar and celery juice attract consumers concerned about chemical preservatives. These ingredients may be listed as natural flavoring on labels; however, plant products can contribute to nitrate content, as well.
Research points in another direction.
Surprising findings show that nitrates found in plant foods may not be harmful. In fact, when they occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, they may even have heart health benefits, as reported in
The health threat of nitrates continues to be debated, and scientists call for more research to understand the risks. Still, it's not a bad idea to keep your nitrate/nitrite intake from cured meats to a minimum; these tend to be high in sodium and saturated fat, anyway. But there's no reason to shy away from fruits and vegetables.
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