The first time I saw nitrate-free bacon at Trader Joe’s I wondered why it wasn’t made with sustainably-sourced pork. “What’s the point?” I thought. Indeed, has the public been mislead to care about one issue, when the real issue is more pervasive and subtle?
Let’s first look at the truths surrounding nitrates:
- Nitrates have been used for hundreds of years to preserve meats and dairy products.
- Nitrates convert to nitrites during the curing process. By adding sodium nitrite manufacturers were able to expedite the curing timeline.
- While both of these components prevent rancidity and the growth of bacteria, consuming excess amounts can be toxic in all mammals.
- Celery, salad greens, cabbage, turnips and spinach all contain nitrates. So does fresh meat.
- Our bodies actually require nitrates in moderation. One function they perform is to kill oral germs, being a compound found in saliva. They have also been found to dilate blood vessels, increasing blood flow. Increased nitrite and nitrate consumption, in the form of nitrate-rich produce, is now being recommended after heart attacks!
- Over the last decade nitrates have gotten a bad rap. Manufacturers began adding vegetable-sourced preservatives, instead of sodium nitrite, usually celery juice or celery powder.
IS CELERY JUICE A GOOD ALTERNATIVE TO CHEMICAL NITRITES?
The short answer is “no.” Nitrate-free has become a popular selling point for many bacon producers. However, celery juice contains high levels of nitrates, which is why it is being used.
The use of celery juice as a source of nitrates is not regulated by the USDA. Strict guidelines are in place for all foods containing sodium nitrite; so its quantity is limited to a small fraction of the recipe. 10 parts per million (or less) remain once the curing process is complete. This is not the case with celery juice. It can be used in lesser, or more commonly, higher quantities with zero regulation or standardization. Therefore, “nitrate-free” bacon will likely have larger amounts of nitrates than bacon without this label, up to ten times the amount, according to the The Journal of Food Protection.
Also, if the ingredients do not say “organic celery juice” celery is one of the “dirty dozen,” a crop heavily treated with pesticides. We are creating a demand for conventional celery and therefore ongoing pesticide use.
WHAT’S THE BIGGER ISSUE?
So it’s not really a cut and dry issue: avoid all nitrates. The issue is more accurately that we need to have an awareness of how many nitrates we are consuming and, on a different note, look at the meat sourcing.
Labels are designed to trick us. Again, nitrate-free does not mean healthy. Look for bacon or other processed meats that say “pasture-raised,” “grass-fed” and “organic.” Also remember to look at the other ingredients in your cured meat and consider the company that makes the product. Is the company sustainably-minded? What are the other ingredients? If your cured meat does not contain a Vitamin C source, consider consuming the meat with a food source of Vitamin C. Or eat bacon for lunch on a sunny patio, to get your Vitamin D!