Food & Diet
Deadly or Just Delicious: Cured Meat & Nitrites
Cured meat, especially bacon and ham, have long been every meat lover’s salty treat and a great addition to eggs and other dishes. However, there have been some doubts and controversies about the healthiness of these foods – can we eat them and enjoy their deliciousness without repercussions?
Sodium nitrite is used to cure meats in order to block the growth of bacteria that could cause botulism, as well as prevent spoilage. Other than that, nitrite is also responsible for that well known taste and color. A study sponsored by USDA also found that nitrites can also prevent the expansion of Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that can lead to illness.
Reading this, we get the impression that curing is actually a way to make meat healthier. However, not everything is black and white, especially when it comes to nutrition.
According to the American Meat Institute and their evaluation of numerous studies regarding nitrite safety, nitrite is safe and necessary in order to substantially decrease the risk of botulism. The National Toxicology Program, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spent years studying the safety of the use of nitrites, and they finally found that the amounts used for curing meat are safe. This study was reviewed and approved in year 2000 by a panel of experts at the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The study also concluded that nitrites are safe for pregnant women to consume, as it poses no threat for fetuses.
Numerous studies have indicated that not only are nitrites safe, but they have many health benefits as well, as they destroy pathogens in the gut and according to studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health, they can even prevent preeclampsia during pregnancy.
The institute published many studies over the years, and all of them confirm the benefits of nitrites. The scientists from the institute even came to the conclusion that in time, nitrite could be used as treatment for heart attacks, leg vascular problems and several other conditions. However, these conclusions still don’t have scientific evidence to back them up, and more research needs to be conducted in order to confirm them.
Scientists from the University of Minnesota have looked into the benefits and risks of eating cured meats, and concluded that the nitrite used in meat and meat products provides more benefits than it does harm.
However, although many studies suggest that nitrite is safe and eating cured meat isn’t dangerous, there are still myths about its safety. Dr. Nathan Bryan, an expert on nitrite at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, based on findings that show that nitrites can prevent several diseases and conditions, including heart attack, high blood pressure, and cell anemia, concludes that the myths speaking against the healthiness of nitrites are very weak and that lovers of cured meat can enjoy without being scared for their health.
Scientists have spoken and research has shown that eating cured meat isn’t dangerous, but there isn’t any information on how much is too much. Certainly it couldn’t be healthy to eat a pound or more of bacon or ham for one meal. And too much of anything can be harmful.
Since cured meats are not the only source of nitrites we consume day in and day out, we should take a look at the doses. According to the American Meat Institute, we take in less than 5 percent of our daily nitrite allowance through cured meat, and around 93 percent comes in from leafy vegetables and our saliva.
Namely, most vegetables contain nitrates, which are turned into nitrites in our mouths with the help of saliva.
Vegetables that contain very high doses of nitrates are spinach, beets, radishes, celery and cabbages, and the levels depend on maturity, soil conditions, fertilizers, etc. The levels of nitrite that can be used for the curing process, set by the Meat Inspection Regulations, are 1 ounce per 100 pounds of meat (dry cured) and ¼ ounce per 100 pounds of chopped meat and/or meat by-products.
According to “GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) Food Ingredients: Nitrates and Nitrites (Including Nitrosamines), 1972” – a report made for the FDA, 30-35 grams of potassium nitrate consumed in a single dose is fatal, and the fatal dose of sodium nitrite is 20-22 mg per kilogram of weight. There are no confirmable study results that suggest that nitrites could cause cancer, and GRAS explains that the largest amount of nitrites we consume doesn’t come from cured meats but from vegetables.
Therefore, eating everything in moderation, including cured meat as well as vegetables, will not cause any health complications.