Do you eat processed meats? Hot dogs, ham, sausage, salami, pepperoni and even the ground beef used in many convenience foods have long been scrutinized due to the use of sodium nitrite in the curing process. And the latest evidence of health risks is pretty grim.
From Planet Green:
If you haven’t read about the recent study, here’s some news: the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has found that eating processed meats is directly linked to cancer.
From a National Review story about the study: “Processed meats are too dangerous for human consumption. Consumers should stop buying and eating all processed meat products for the rest of their lives.”
In reviewing more than 7,000 clinical trials, WCRF found that processed meats, including bacon, sausage, hot dogs, sandwich meat, packaged ham, pepperoni, salami and just about all red meat used in frozen meals, are made (unless you look specifically for nitrate-free products) with sodium nitrite.
Sodium nitrite is used to change the color of the meats, so they look fresh even when they’re not. It also forms nitrosamines, a carcinogen, in the human body.
Standard advice to avoid this risk is to buy processed meats labeled “nitrate-free,” but it turns out this label is rather misleading. It simply means the manufacturer did not add man-made sodium nitrate in the curing process. Instead they use a vegetable extract that is very high in nitrate. The meat still contains nitrates but they don’t have to list sodium nitrate on the ingredient list.
According to Harold McGee in the New York Times:
In the 1970s, the nitrite and nitrate in cured meats fell under the suspicion that they might cause cancer. Later research showed that we get far more of these chemicals from vegetables like celery, spinach and lettuce. Their abundant nitrate comes from the soil and is turned into nitrite by bacteria living in our mouths.
Nevertheless consumers remain wary of nitrite-cured meats. And United States Department of Agriculture regulations forbid the use of pure nitrate or nitrite in foods labeled “natural” or “organic.”
So ingenious manufacturers figured out how to replace the pure chemicals with a mix of nitrate-rich vegetable extracts and bacterial cultures that convert the nitrate into nitrite. (Celery-juice powder, for one, is especially rich in nitrate and has little flavor of its own.) As a result, natural and organic hot dogs that once were quite drab are starting to look better.
According to a review from the American Meat Science Association, recent studies at Iowa State University show that careful formulation and processing can produce vegetable-cured hot dogs and hams that are quite similar to their nitrite-cured models in color and flavor. They are not, however, free of nitrites or nitrates, no matter what the label suggests.
One more viewpoint you may find useful as you assess how to modify your diet comes form the Center for Science in the Public Interest. According to their food additives glossary:
Meat processors love sodium nitrite because it stabilizes the red color in cured meat (without nitrite, hot dogs and bacon would look gray) and gives a characteristic flavor. Sodium nitrate is used in dry cured meat, because it slowly breaks down into nitrite. Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of potent cancer-causing chemicals (nitrosamines), particularly in fried bacon. Nitrite, which also occurs in saliva and forms from nitrate in several vegetables, can undergo the same chemical reaction in the stomach. Companies now add ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid to bacon to inhibit nitrosamine formation, a measure that has greatly reduced the problem. While nitrite and nitrate cause only a small risk, they are still worth avoiding.
Several studies have linked consumption of cured meat and nitrite by children, pregnant women, and adults with various types of cancer. Although those studies have not yet proven that eating nitrite in bacon, sausage, and ham causes cancer in humans, pregnant women would be prudent to avoid those products.
The meat industry justifies its use of nitrite and nitrate by claiming that it prevents the growth of bacteria that cause botulism poisoning. That’s true, but freezing and refrigeration could also do that, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed a safe method using lactic-acid-producing bacteria. The use of nitrite and nitrate has decreased greatly over the decades, because of refrigeration and restrictions on the amounts used. The meat industry could do the public’s health a favor by cutting back even further. Because nitrite is used primarily in fatty, salty foods, consumers have important nutritional reasons for avoiding nitrite-preserved foods.
(Note: This information has not been updated with the most recent findings mentioned above linking nitrite with cancer.)
So, what can you do?
1. Get to know your processed meat — really, really well. Apparently, there are still some long-cured meats that rely on salts and other traditional methods for curing and preserving. Ask at the meat counter, ask at your local butcher’s, maybe find a local farmer. Whatever you choose, do some research.
2. Eat less processed meat. Moderation is an easy step to take — and if you’re living healthy in other aspects of your life, don’t beat yourself up for having a piece of ham here and there.
3. Choose organic when possible. Even if there are still vegetable-based nitrates, organic meats are safer meats.
4. Eat a diet high in antioxidants, such as vitamins C (ascorbic acid) and E, which stop the breakdown of nitrites into carcinogenic nitrosamines.
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