Nitrate Fact or Fiction
In the meat processing world, “nitrate” and “nitrite” have always been commonly used words and topics of conversation. However, in recent years, these words have also become more popular in the vocabularies of the general population. There are a lot of myths surrounding nitrates in processed meats. While we won’t take you back to chemistry class, we did want to shed some light on some of the science regarding nitrates.
Let’s start with the basic fact: nitrates are simply naturally occurring chemical compounds containing nitrogen and oxygen. Naturally occurring means that there are levels of nitrate found in things like vegetables and even human saliva. Beets, celery, lettuce, and spinach are a few vegetables that naturally contain the chemical compound. Actually, about 93% of the nitrates we consume come from vegetables and saliva, while about 5% comes from cured meats, such as hams, bacon, hot dogs, etc.1 Despite this fact, most people associate the word nitrates just with cured or processed meats.
Even though nitrates in processed meats make up a small part of our diet, nitrates do play a large role in the meat industry. Nitrates help prevent botulism in cured meats, which improves the safety of consumption. They create distinct aromas, flavors, and color the meat to a reddish or pinkish hue.2
In the curing process, there are different kinds of cures that are used. Some products are cured using a modern cure, which is when the nitrate itself is injected into the meat and then smoked. Other methods, such as the traditional cure method, use a mixture of celery powder, which is high in nitrate, combined with salt. This mixture is injected into the meat, which causes a reaction when exposed to the heat of a smokehouse and results in the same thing as when the nitrate is directly injected into the meat. Product made using the traditional cure method is often referred to as “uncured.”
Often, the association between nitrates and processed meats is considered negative and is sometimes blamed as the cause of certain health issues. However, according to the US National Toxicology Program3 which is referred to as “the gold standard” in determining if substances cause health issues, some of the benefits of nitrates include improved cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, protection from heart attack and stroke, and more.
While this doesn’t mean that all you should eat is bacon (although we think that would be pretty enjoyable), we hope that it does show that nitrates aren’t as scary as they’re made out to be. The US National Toxicology Program warns not to “get caught up in the fads and scare tactics” regarding nitrates in processed meats. As part of a well-balanced diet, nitrates from processed meats are only a small portion of the total nitrates we consume and can have certain health benefits.
If you’re interested in digging deeper on the topic of nitrates in the food industry, here are some links that may be helpful to you: