The Nitrate Controversy
Updated: Jul 31
Aimee Kalczuk, Cox College Masters student and guest blogger, contributes this great explanation to help us understand the nitrate controversy. Thank you, Aimee! ~Donna
Nitrites. The Hot Topic Among Hot Dogs (and More)!
Have you ever browsed the bacon or hot dog section of the grocery store and been overwhelmed by the dizzying amount of the same type of meat? Commercially cured, natural, organic, uncured, no nitrate added, the list goes on and on. But what is a nitrite, and why are people so afraid of them? And what is the best type of cured meat to buy? The answer may surprise you.
What are nitrites?
A nitrite is a chemical compound made of nitrogen and oxygen. It has been used for curing meat since the Middle Ages because it prevents the growth of bacteria (particularly botulism), prevents meat fat from going rancid, and gives it a distinctive flavor and color.
Nitrates (A) vs. nitrites (I).
Chemically, nitrates have one nitrogen and three oxygens and nitrites have one nitrogen and two oxygens. A nitrate can lose an oxygen and turn into a nitrite and vice versa. (This is important.)
In the past people would put nitrates in meat to cure it. However, they learned that bacteria naturally found in meat converts nitrates to nitrites in the meat. Now, instead of adding nitrates to the meat, they cut out the middle man and just add a strictly controlled amount of nitrites (between 120–200 parts per million depending on the meat, or 0.012% to 0.02%). This is just enough to prevent dangerous bacterial growth and give the meat its color and flavor without reaching dangerous levels.
So why should you worry about nitrites?
Nitrites can react with amines in the body to form nitrosamines, which are thought to cause cancer, particularly in the stomach and throat. This conclusion was made because animal studies have shown nitrosamines cause tumors in a variety of species, including primates. While no human studies have been done to test nitrosamines and tumor growth in humans, it is thought the same results would occur.
Surprisingly, 80–90% of our nitrite intake comes from vegetables! Vegetables are naturally high in nitrates, which are converted into nitrites in our body. The good news is that Vitamin C (also present in many vegetables) can reduce the conversion of nitrites to nitrosamines, thereby neutralizing their effects. So, don’t use this as an excuse to eat fewer vegetables!
Commercial vs. “uncured,” “natural,” and “organic.”
Oddly enough, all cured meats have nitrites, even ones labeled “no nitrites added!” Regulations require that commercially cured meats have nitrites added, but even “uncured” meat needs those nitrites to become a final product. So how do they get around adding nitrites? By adding the middle man back in!
Celery juice is naturally very high in nitrates, so it's commonly used in natural and uncured meats. By adding nitrates that will eventually become nitrites to the meat, companies can get around the label “cured meat” because it technically does not fit the commercial criteria.
Why is this a problem? When you add nitrates to meat, you can’t control how much of it is converted into nitrites. This means that when you buy a “no nitrite added” meat, you can never be sure of how many nitrites you are consuming they way you can with commercially prepared meat.
So what does this mean for me and my hot dog?
Eat cured and processed meats in moderation. There are several reasons, but concern about nitrites should not be at the top of that list. People have been enjoying cured meat for centuries, and as long as you are consuming an overall healthy diet you can indulge in your favorite cured meats—cured or “uncured!”