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Sodium Nitrite/Nitrate: Preserving Meats at What Cost?

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Last Updated on December 23, 2023 by Max

Welcome to the Eleventh Part of Our Food Safety Series

In this part of our series on food safety standards, we focus on Sodium Nitrite and Nitrate, key compounds in meat curing processes. These substances, while enhancing flavor and safety, raise health concerns, particularly regarding their potential to form cancer-causing compounds. We explore the balance between their benefits in preventing bacterial growth, the health risks they might pose, and the regulatory perspectives of the U.S. and European Union.

When you enjoy a hot dog at a baseball game, bacon with your breakfast, or salami on your sandwich, you have likely consumed sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate. These compounds are commonly used in curing meats, contributing to their distinctive color and flavor and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria (National Center for Home Food Preservation, 2015).

However, the safety of these substances is under scrutiny. When cooked or broken down in the stomach, nitrites can form nitrosamines, compounds found to cause cancer in animals (National Cancer Institute, 2015). Human studies have also found associations between diets high in processed meats and an increased risk of certain types of cancer, including colorectal cancer (Bouvard et al., 2015).

Despite these concerns, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) currently allow the use of sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate in food production, albeit at regulated levels (FDA, 2018; EFSA, 2017). This is mainly because the risk of bacterial contamination, particularly with botulism, outweighs the potential risk of cancer (National Center for Home Food Preservation, 2015).

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The debate continues. Many health-conscious consumers and food producers seek alternatives to traditional curing agents, such as celery juice, which naturally contains nitrates. However, these alternatives may have their risks (Sindelar & Milkowski, 2012).

This complex issue highlights the need for ongoing research, balanced risk assessment, and informed consumer choices. What are your thoughts on using sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate in food? Do you consider these factors when choosing what to eat?

Conclusion

Our discussion of Sodium Nitrite and Nitrate in processed meats brings us to a critical juncture of food safety and health risks. While regulators balance these factors, consumers face choices about their dietary intake. This complex issue underscores the importance of ongoing research and informed decision-making. What are your views on the use of these curing agents in meats? How do these concerns influence your dietary choices?

References

  1. National Cancer Institute (NCI). (2015). Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. Bethesda, MD: NCI. 
  2. Bouvard, V., et al. (2015). Carcinogenicity of Consumption of Red and Processed Meat. The Lancet Oncology, 16(16), 1599-1600. 
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2018). Food Additive Status List. Washington, D.C.: FDA. 
  4. European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). (2017). Re-Evaluation of Sodium Nitrate (E 251) and Potassium Nitrate (E 252) as Food Additives. EFSA Journal, 15(6), 4787. 
  5. National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP). (2015). Historical Origins of Food Preservation. Athens, GA: NCHFP. 
  6. Sindelar, J.J., & Milkowski, A.L. (2012). Sodium Nitrite in Processed Meat and Poultry Meats: A Review of Curing and Examining the Risk/Benefit of Its Use. American Meat Science Association White Paper Series, 3, 1-14
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