Nitrates in processed meats, like bacon, ham, deli meats, sausages, and beef jerky, have been scrutinized and vilified since the 1970s. Nitrates (in the form of sodium nitrate) are added to most processed meats to “cure” or preserve them, giving them their characteristic color and taste, while preventing contamination, particularly with the sometimes deadly Botulinum and Listeria bacteria.
Yet the Environmental Working Group includes nitrates on its “Dirty Dozen” list of dangerous food additives. And the World Health Organization reports that consumption of processed meats, a source of nitrates, is strongly linked to cancer. Thus, the concern over nitrates has led to more meats labeled “no nitrates added.”
Should you go nitrate-free?
Before reaching for that “no nitrate” product, here are a few things you should know first:
- You can’t completely avoid nitrates, since 80 percent of the nitrates in our diet come from vegetables, such as celery, greens, beets, parsley, leeks, cabbage, and fennel, and drinking water. Only about six percent come from cured meats.
- Vegetarian diets, which have been shown to be healthy, contain about four times more nitrates than a conven-tional diet.
- Nitrates themselves are not the problem; there is cause for concern only when they are converted by the body to nitrosamines. Nitrosamines have been identified as cancer-causing compounds.
- Meats, such as organic lunchmeats, labeled “no nitrates added” are not actually nitrate-free. Instead of add-ing sodium nitrate, celery powder (naturally rich in nitrates) is typically used. However, even naturally occur-ring nitrates can be converted in the body to nitrosamines.
- Antioxidants, such as vitamin C, found in fruits and vegetables, help reduce the conversion of nitrates to ni-trosamines. Some processed meats have vitamin C added (labeled “ascorbic acid”).
- While some previous studies have linked nitrates to certain forms of cancer, several recent studies, including one published in January 2016 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have found that dietary nitrates may be beneficial by helping to lower blood pressure and prevent damage to arteries.
Processed Meat Risks
According to the World Health Organization, the scientific evidence that processed meats are linked to cancer is as strong as that for smoking and asbestos. An analysis of 10 studies in the report estimated that consuming a 1.7-ounce portion of processed meat daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 percent. How-ever, it isn’t known if nitrates are to blame.
The Bottom Line
Without nitrates, bacon and ham would be an unappetizing gray color and lack that unique “cured” flavor. Choosing processed meat labeled “no added nitrates” doesn’t mean you’re avoiding nitrates; it simply means nitrate-rich celery powder has been substituted for sodium nitrate.
Keep in mind that most processed meats are high in saturated fat and sodium, which everyone should limit, whether or not you choose no-nitrates-added meat.
—Densie Webb, PhD, RD