Nitrate, Nitrite, Nitrosamines

At Something GUD we take customer concerns about the health of the products we sell very seriously. One of you brought up sodium nitrite in cured meat products, such as Lilac Hedge Farm’s bacon, and related health concerns. Thank you – we always appreciate your questions!

We spent hours researching the topic, and here is what we learned.

First, we called Lilac Hedge Farm, and talked to Ryan MacKay – one of the two owners – and asked why they use nitrites. He said that he had no choice – there is not a single smoke house in the state of Massachusetts that cures meat products without the use of synthesized nitrites. They have zero other options besides throwing out their bacon. Curing, by the way, prevents the growth of harmful bacteria, for example Clostridium botulinum, which produces the extremely potent and lethal botulinum toxin. Whether you buy bacon from Lilac Hedge Farm or any other farm in the state, you will find yourself in the same boat.

It also turns out that the label ‘nitrite free’ is a misnomer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has decided that ‘naturally occurring’ sources of sodium nitrite can be used to cure meat and be marked ‘nitrite free’. These meat products don’t necessarily contain any less nitrite on average than meats cured with synthetic sodium nitrite. The difference is that the nitrite is being derived from a source like celery juice. This farm in North Carolina did a good job of explaining their decision to be ‘nitrite free’ and what it means in practice. So if you do want to genuinely cut down on nitrites in your meat, your only choice may be to avoid cured meat products altogether.

However, it all isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

There are three reasons.

  1. About 80% – 85% of the nitrate and nitrite we consume comes from leafy green vegetables and root vegetables. They contain up to more than 200 times more nitrite per pound than cured meats (see graphic below).
  2. Our body itself produces both nitrate and nitrite. The amount of nitrate and nitrite ingested from cured meat pales in comparison to the amounts synthesized daily in the human body. A 150-220 lbs person produces about 70-100 mg of nitrite a day, whereas a cooked hot dog contains about 0.5-1.0 mg.
  3. Nitrate and nitrite serve vital purposes in our body. For one, there is substantial evidence that metabolized forms are critical for cardiovascular health, such as the reduction of hypertension. Another example: nitrite may be converted to nitrous oxide in the body, a process that, when defective, is most often the cause for erectile dysfunction. In fact, our bodies have evolved a system that minimizes loss of nitrate. An active transport mechanism in the kidney pumps nitrate from the urine back into the blood. About 80% of nitrate contained in the urine is recovered in that way.

But what about the health concernsWhile nitrate itself is not toxic, it is converted to nitrite in the body. Nitrite can react with degradation products of amino acids and form nitrosamines. The majority of nitrosamines have indeed carcinogenic properties. The study which caused an outcry over a link between nitrites and cancer was published in 1970. Panic mongering prompted parents to drive to their children’s schools to extract hot dogs from their lunches, and Ralph Nader famously called the hot dog “among America’s deadliest missiles”.  However, it was found to be flawed. The rats used in the study were fed an amount of nitrite that would be comparable to you eating 1,586 lbs of bacon a day, every day, for half of your life.

So how come we don’t get sick from our leafy greens? Nitrosamine formation happens all the time in our gastrointestinal system, whether we eat meat or not. Also in 1970, it was discovered that vitamin C very potently inhibits nitrosamine formation, and in 1996 it was shown that vitamin E has the same function. Other antioxidants found in plants may have a similar effect. So while you may ingest quite a bit of nitrate naturally found in some of your vegetables, they at the same time deliver the molecules that neutralize the toxic nitrosamine metabolic by-products.

The conclusion: eat healthy and diverse, and don’t forget your veggies with your bacon!

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