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?
When we purchase bacon that is “nitrate-free,” but not pasture-raised or organic, we are doing two things:
- We are supporting a meat that has not been sustainably sourced. The meat itself isn’t healthy just because the label says “nitrate-free.” The pork still comes from a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). And the pork industry is the among the worst, with pigs literally never seeing the light of day from the time they are born to the time they are slaughtered.
- And secondly, we are perhaps ingesting greater amounts of nitrates, instead of less.
Organic producers often standardize their natural preservative quantities, with healthfulness and transparency toward customers in mind.
IF NITRATES ARE NEEDED IN OUR DIET, HOW DID “NITRATE-FREE” BECOME POPULAR?
Here are the health issues concerning nitrates that make them worthy of caution:
- As aforementioned, large quantities of nitrates are not desirable in any mammal diet. There is a carcinogenic compound, called N- nitrosamines, associated with various forms of cancer, leukemia, lung disease and migraines. So while some nitrate consumption is recommended, too much can be disease causing. How to measure? One study said the equivalent of 12 hotdogs a month was the limit. Frankly, (no pun intended), we love Applegate Farm’s grass-fed organic hotdogs*. They’re convenient and well-sourced. But 12 hotdogs a month comes along pretty quickly when my kids eat 2-3 hotdogs in one sitting.
- An additional danger from nitrites and nitrates occurs when they are heated to high temperatures! This was news to me. The carcinogenic compound, N-nitrosamines, is produced. However, there are ways to inhibit this conversion: consuming Vitamins C, D and E. Some people drink orange juice when eating cured meats, to this purpose. Most cured meat companies add ascorbic acid to their meat for the same reason. These vitamins are naturally occurring in the fruits and vegetables that are high in nitrates, which allows them to naturally inhibit the conversion to nitrosamines. (However, the amount of these vitamins found in the amount of celery used to cure meat is not high enough to inhibit the conversion.)
- Nitrosamines are also formed when nitrites combine with protein and stomach acid. In addition to adding Vitamin C, some meat producers, therefore, add alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), to prevent this formation. Have you seen ascorbic acid or alpha-tocopherol in your cured meats? Now we know why.
- High-nitrate produce that is not grown organically, using high nitrate fertilizers, will have higher levels of nitrates and a bitter flavor. This increased nitrate content is not desirable, being out of balance with the vegetable’s natural nutritional profile, especially Vitamins C and D. So not only do we want to limit our nitrate consumption from cured meats, we should specifically avoid conventional produce that’s grown with synthetic fertilizers. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] even reveals, “Nitrates and nitrites in fertilizers readily migrate from fertilized soil to groundwater.”)
WHAT DOES “UNCURED” MEAN?
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a division of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), does not yet recognize natural preservatives, such as celery products, as safe anti-pathogenic curing agents. Therefore, meats that are cured with celery, or other vegetable sources, must be marked “uncured” despite that fact that they are indeed cured. Natural curing agents are considered “flavorings.”
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!