As my family and I prepare to celebrate Labor Day with some delicious hot dogs and homemade buns, it’s hard to shake the thoughts about nitrates. It’s a deciding factor for many people when they buy processed meat like bacon or lunchmeat, and it’s been hanging out in the back of my mind since I bought all-beef Hebrew National hot dogs last month.
But what exactly is a nitrate? What’s the big deal? Is there even a big deal to be concerned about?!
Buying items labeled “free of nitrates” seems to be all the rage now and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between a food fad (remember when fat-free was the only way to go?) and true health guidance. I did a little bit of research to help ease my mind and found lots of really good information. I’ve summarized it for you here and did my best to slim down the science so that us regular folk can get to the bottom of this hot issue.
In reference to food, “nitrate” really means sodium nitrate, but should really refer to sodium nitrite. While these are two completely different chemical compounds, they are often used interchangeably by those outside of the science realm.
- Sodium nitrate is a type of salt, naturally found in Chile and Peru. It can also be created in a lab.
- Sodium nitrite is also a type of salt, but is not found naturally and is created in a lab or as a byproduct of two other chemical reactions (i.e. when sodium nitrate is added to food and reacts with existing chemicals).
Since sodium nitrate is most often added as a preservative (and then breaks down into sodium nitrite), research efforts are concentrated on the latter.
The original purpose stems from the early 1900s when each of these salts were used to standardize curing – both in the amount needed to cure and in achieving the desired results. In the original research, sodium nitrite was also found to help prevent botulism.
Botulism is a type of poisoning that happens when the microorganism Clostridium botulinum creates the protein botulin. Botulin invades the body where nerve cells meet muscle fibers and then prevent signals from passing through, resulting in paralysis. Heating the food kills the protein and prevents the poisoning from occurring, but consuming cured meat was common in this era as heat sources were not always available.
In addition to preventing the growth of these harmful microorganisms, sodium nitrite was also found to help preserve the color of meat and even prevent the meat from going rancid over longer periods of time.
Imagine a horse and buggy traveling across the country, killing animals as needed for food. Not all the meat could be consumed at one time and refrigeration wasn’t available. Sodium nitrite was used to cure and preserve the meat. The meat stayed red or pink and would be edible without causing sickness for days, possibly weeks.
At the surface level, sodium nitrite seemed to be a miracle preservative. Even today, it is sold as a food additive, although it is dyed bright pink to prevent consumers mistaking it for salt.
Is there concern for mistaking sodium nitrite for salt? Given that sodium nitrite is toxic in large quantities, yes. Research indicates that the toxic level of sodium nitrite for a 143lb person is 71 mg/kg… meaning consumption of this amount would result in death.
However, sodium nitrite occurs naturally in most of the vegetables we consume. For example, curly kale has been clocked in at 302 mg/kg and green cauliflower at 61 mg/kg. Most vegetables fall somewhere between 1.1 and 57 mg/kg.
Does this mean we can die from consuming large amounts of fresh vegetables?
No. The concern for poisoning from nitrites is not a concern in regards to vegetables. In fact, our bodies produce sodium nitrite in the digestive process. Vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals that inhibit the production of nitrosamines, the carcinogenic chemical that sodium nitrite creates when it is charred or overcooked.
Wait a second? Charring or overcooking meat – meat that contains sodium nitrate (or nitrite) – creates a chemical that is directly involved in causing cancer?
So then what about my hot dogs tonight? What will happen to my body if they’re slightly charred? Will my DNA be damaged? Will my cells break down? Will I develop Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or colon cancer?
Maybe. Maybe not.
All meats that contain nitrates (added for curing or preserving) also contain ascorbic acid, a form of Vitamin C, as required by the USDA. Some manufacturers play it extra safe and add alpha-tocopherol (a form of Vitamin E and an antioxidant). Both of these inhibit the formation of nitrosamines and the levels of this carcinogenic chemical are significantly lower than what they were in the 1970’s, when the USDA realized that nitrates could be harmful.
So if the nitrates in meat have been negated with added vitamins, then why are manufacturers making “nitrate-free” or “no added nitrates” meat?
Because we as a society have been scared into believing that all nitrates are bad.
But that’s not true. Remember that almost all vegetables contain some level of nitrates – especially green vegetables (spinach, lettuce, celery, etc.) – and we’re told to eat as much of these as we can because of the benefits they offer.
As people conscious of our health and trying to improve on what we eat, we should be concerned about the amount of nitrates we consume. It is certain that consuming excessive amounts of processed food is bad for our health. Did we not learn this lesson from the documentary “Super Size Me?” Bacon, hot dogs and lunch meat are indeed processed meats and they must be consumed in moderation.
What is considered moderation? Therecommends no more than 12 hot dogs in a one month period for children. While I haven’t studied the level of nitrates in every brand of hot dog, lunch meat and bacon, we could err on the side of caution and say that children should not consume more than 12 servings of all of the above types of meat in a one month period. Surely we know not to feed our kids hot dogs every other day, but when totaling the number of processed meat our children consume in a one month period, we could easily reach the 12 serving mark. One hot dog here, a turkey sandwich there… bacon on the weekends. So it’s no wonder why families have flocked to products marked “nitrate-free” or “no added nitrates.” It makes us feel safer when we feed our children (and ourselves) processed meat.
But here’s one last food for thought. In order for this type of meat to survive from production to store shelves and inevitably, to our freezer, there must be some type of preservative. The most common, natural preservative used to achieve the same effect as sodium nitrate is celery juice, or celery juice powder. Both forms of celery juice are chosen for their significantly high, although natural, levels of nitrates. And since celery juice is a plant-based ingredient, and not specifically sodium nitrate, manufacturers are allowed to label the products “nitrate-free” or “no added nitrates.”
What does this mean?
It means that while we purchase meats labeled “nitrate-free” or “no added nitrates” and believe the nitrate level is zero, the actual nitrate level may be far from that.
There’s a decent chance that the nitrate levels in the “free” meat are lower than the meat preserved with pure sodium nitrate, but they’re still not zero. And since celery juice doesn’t prevent botulism from forming, there’s an increased risk of children getting sick from these products if they’re not properly prepared.
Goodness. What’s a health conscious family to do?
Consume all processed meats in moderation. Whether that be traditionally cured meats with sodium nitrite, or meats preserved with celery juice – use discretion and moderation. Be conscious of how many servings our household consumes. Limit purchases so that consumption is limited and choose an alternative if possible (freshly cooked chicken breast sliced for sandwiches instead of processed chicken breast lunch meat). If products with celery juice (any form) are consumed, be sure to cook the product thoroughly.
Simply being conscious of how much we’re consuming is half the battle. Bacon on Saturday, a turkey sandwich on Sunday and hot dogs on Monday… we could easily surpass moderation if we aren’t paying attention.
How do you feel about nitrates? Do you eat them? Avoid them? Never heard of them?
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