The Truth About Nitrites (For my bacon and hot dog lovin’ friends)

I’ve been on the “no nitrates/nitrites in my house” bandwagon for a few years now. Then a friend told me that she heard the celery juice/powder used in organic, uncured hot dogs was the same as the sodium nitrites they add chemically.  So I had to research this and find out the truth about nitrites.

Nitrates vs. Nitrites

I always thought they were one and the same, besides being bad for you.  Not so.  Nitrites are related to but not the same as nitrates. Nitrates are present in many vegetables.

Vegetables high in nitrates are beets, lettuce, spinach, and most green, leafy vegetables.  When we eat nitrates, a small percentage of the nitrates is converted by the body into nitrites. A higher pH level in gastric juices results in more conversion of nitrates to nitrites. Although vegetables constitute a fair amount our nitrite intake (after conversion), vegetables contain antioxidants that reduce the formation of nitrosamines, the real risk of nitrites.

So here is how dietary nitrates (in vegetables) are good for you. They help to increase the amount of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide (NO) helps blood vessels relax, lowering blood pressure. Nitric oxide (NO) has anti-inflammatory activity as well inhibits blood clot formation somewhat.

For example, when you drink beet juice, the bacteria on your tongue changes the nitrates in the beet juice into nitrite. In your stomach, nitrite turns into nitric oxide. Then it gets into your bloodstream as nitrites.  Your blood pressure goes down when the nitrites in your bloodstream are highest.

So Why Is Sodium Nitrite Used to Cure Meats?

The primary reason is that it inhibits the growth of Clostridium Botulinum, the bacterium which causes botulism. It is also gives cured meats that nice pink color and depth of flavor.  The USDA has imposed limits on the amount of sodium nitrite that can be used for processing purposes. Nitrites/Nitrates cannot exceed 200 ppm (parts per million).

Nitrosamines

So how are nitrites bad for you?  Well, it’s pretty much due to nitrosamines. Cured meats can contain nitrosamines because they contain amines and sodium nitrate. When meat containing nitrites is heated (particularly at high temperatures), nitrosamines are produced. They are compounds that have been linked, but not proven, with health issues such as cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Around 1970 it was discovered that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) inhibits nitrosamines formation. Consequently, the addition of 550 ppm of ascorbic acid is now required in the manufacture of cured meats in the U.S. Another antioxidant, alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), is added to some cured meats to inhibit nitrosamines formation. As a result of adding these antioxidants, there are now significantly lower levels of nitrosamines in fried bacon and other cured meats than there were years ago.

Organic Uncured Meats

Celery juice powder is now used as an organic replacement for sodium nitrite. Remember, certain vegetables, including celery, have naturally occurring nitrates in them that our body converts to nitrites. Several organic meat farmers use celery juice and salt in place of sodium nitrite. I purchase my favorite uncured bacon at Trader Joe’s and it’s from Niman Ranch. Below is the statement found on their company website on how they “cure” their meats.

Despite USDA regulations, it’s probably more accurate to say that
our uncured products are naturally cured. Instead of adding nitrate or
nitrite chemicals, we use celery juice, a source of naturally occurring
sodium nitrate. During processing, the nitrate in celery juice is
consumed by lacto bacteria, anaerobic organisms similar to the friendly
bacteria in yogurt that like a salty environment. As the natural curing
process occurs, the nitrate in celery juice is consumed by the lacto
bacteria and converted, first to nitrite, then to nitrous oxide,
dissipating into the atmosphere. As a result, only minute amounts of
nitrate remains in the meat. But the nitrate has done its job: inhibiting
bacteria, helping meat to retain its pink color, and adding depth of
flavor.

So do nitrites cause cancer? Not sure. Are they bad for you? Not if you eat them in the form of fresh, organic vegetables (nitrates). As for eating them in “cured” meats, well, in moderation is wise. Also, make sure you eat foods rich in vitamins C (tomatoes, kiwi, peppers, mangoes, papayas, oranges) and E (most nuts, tomatoes, olive oil) with that bacon or hot dog.  The antioxidants from these vitamins will reduce the formation of nitrosamines, and makes eating nitrites a negligible health risk.


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