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Old 30th December 2018, 06:09 AM   #1
drelda
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Are nitrites / nitrates in cured meats dangerous?

Hi,

There is currently a bit of media attention on claims that nitrates / nitrites in cured meats (bacon, ham, salami etc) are dangerous and should be outlawed.

eg https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46710071

Quote:
Leading scientists and a cross-party group of politicians are calling for chemicals called nitrites to be removed from processed meats like bacon.

Cancer specialists and politicians are among those backing the campaign to take out nitrites.

They say nitrite-free alternatives are safer and should be more widely used.

I think this is misinformed. I think adding nitrates/nitrites appropriately increases the safety of these products :
  • nitrates/nitrites are the only effective way of preventing botulism - which otherwise would kill a lot of people

  • the amount of nitrates/nitrites put into cured meats is small compared to other sources

  • for example many vegetables contain vastly more than any cured meat

  • the curing process uses up the nitrates/nitrites. I had a lab test done on some dry cured sausage that showed there was zero detectable nitrate or nitrite in the finished product.

  • some people claim that nitrates in vegetables are not a problem because they contain vitamin C which reduces the risk of nitrosamine formation, however exactly the same effect is created in cured meat production by adding Vitamin C (or close equivalents like sodium ascorbate / erythorbate). Most cured meat producers use these, and in some countries they are required by regulation.

  • Nitrosamines (the cancer causing chemicals) are only produced when nitrates are cooked at very high temperatures - almost burned - if more modest temperatures are used then no nitrosamines are created.

  • If there is any risk from eating cooked cured meats, then surely there is a much greater risk from eating cooked vegetables - especially if they are cooked at high temperatures. e.g. stir fried veg in a wok must be super dangerous?

  • Most of the 'nitrate free' products are actually produced by adding celery salt or some other source of 'natural' nitrates - which is just dishonest - and less safe as its hard to know exactly how much nitrate is being added

  • There are lots of good reasons to only eat cured meats in moderation - e.g. salt intake, cholesterol, calories etc. Fear of nitrates/nitrites is not a good reason I think.

I suspect that the current criticism of nitrate/nitrite use in cured meats is not well founded and if they were removed people would die as a result, particularly due to increases in botulism fatalities which would seem inevitable.

My interest in this subject is that I make some cured meats myself on a small scale, and I do use nitrate / nitrites because I believe it is the safest way, and haven't found the argument against them convincing. However I'd happily switch methods if I was persuaded it was safer without them.

Please let me know what you think either way.

thanks - drelda

Last edited by drelda; 30th December 2018 at 06:11 AM. Reason: typo
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Old 30th December 2018, 06:19 AM   #2
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Some people say they are. Some people say they aren't.
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Old 30th December 2018, 06:29 AM   #3
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They are anti-bacterial, prevent Botulism.

And most of the meats are not charred like steaks. Salami is basically eaten raw. Hams and cold cuts are pre-cooked, steamed probably. So nitrosamines are a small problem.

Hey, have you tried ebay for "Pink Salt"? Also called Prague #1 or #2, cheap source of the additive. NOT Himalayan rock salt, the Prague powders were colored so you don't OD on it accidentally. I make "The Best Italian Sausage", from what the people I share some with say. 25# at a time. And today, smoked salmon. Hams from pork shoulder, Goose Breast Pastrami, leg-o-lamb,... any meat that is on sale with a date code of "Use or brine TODAY ! " Salmon was $1.99, saved $33. 12# Boneless leg-o-lamb, 99 cents.

And no Sodium Phosphate anywhere to be seen. I suspect it is worse for hypertension than salt.
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Old 30th December 2018, 06:54 AM   #4
drelda
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Originally Posted by casebro View Post
They are anti-bacterial, prevent Botulism.

And most of the meats are not charred like steaks. Salami is basically eaten raw. Hams and cold cuts are pre-cooked, steamed probably. So nitrosamines are a small problem.
Agreed. I think there should be general advice for people to avoid cooking at very high temperatures - because all kinds of foods can produce nasty chemicals at those temperatures - e.g. various cooking oils, vegetables etc. Cured meats aren't usually cooked like this, but even if they were they wouldn't be very dangerous in terms of nitrosamines given they have very little to zero nitrates/nitrites in them when ready. e.g. spinach typically has over 1000 mg/kg of nitrate, the worst case scenario for cured meat should be < 100 mg/kg, and typically much closer to zero.

Originally Posted by casebro View Post
Hey, have you tried ebay for "Pink Salt"? Also called Prague #1 or #2, cheap source of the additive.
Yes I use both, branded as 'Cure#1' and 'Cure#2' but its the same stuff (though be careful, some suppliers use different %'s in these products and you have to adjust your recipe).

Originally Posted by casebro View Post
And no Sodium Phosphate anywhere to be seen. I suspect it is worse for hypertension than salt.
No, I don't use that either.

- drelda
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Old 30th December 2018, 08:54 AM   #5
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Apparently, if you stuff your face with bacon and ham every day, the risk is increased 20%. Which produces statistically significant numbers when looking a nation population but virtually nothing when considering the individual.
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Old 30th December 2018, 09:20 AM   #6
drelda
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Originally Posted by baron View Post
Apparently, if you stuff your face with bacon and ham every day, the risk is increased 20%.
I can easily believe that eating lots of meat in general has health consequences - I think its generally understood that salty, fatty foods should be eaten in moderation.

However the claim here is specifically that nitrates / nitrites in cured meat products cause significant extra risk which would be avoided by switching to nitrate free products. There doesn't seem to be much evidence for that I can see?

The mechanism which seems to be proposed is that when cured meat is cooked at high temperatures, nitrosamines can be formed. However that is also true of vegetables and other foods that have a lot more nitrates/nitrites than cured meat. If their advice was instead to generally avoid cooking anything at very high temperatures then fine, that is probably reasonable, but it has nothing to do with nitrates in cured meat.

Some people have claimed that the nitrates in vegetables don't cause harm because they are 'natural' - but this is clearly nonsense - its just chemicals regardless of their source.

It feels like the whole thing is a spurious health scare leveraging off the common fear people have of chemicals, or additives rather than real science. The trouble is they are explicitly calling for actions which I think will kill significant numbers of people if taken.

It feels like the anti-vax nonsense, the argument doesn't seem to be backed by science but its getting a lot of support regardless.

- Drelda
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Old 30th December 2018, 09:36 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by drelda View Post
I can easily believe that eating lots of meat in general has health consequences - I think its generally understood that salty, fatty foods should be eaten in moderation.

However the claim here is specifically that nitrates / nitrites in cured meat products cause significant extra risk which would be avoided by switching to nitrate free products. There doesn't seem to be much evidence for that I can see?
I don't know much about it as I rarely eat processed meats, but this is what the BBC claimed research shows about eating nitrates in processed meat - a 20% increased risk. So if your base risk is 5 in 100 then your new risk would be 6 in 100. Basically an irrelevance.
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Old 30th December 2018, 10:18 AM   #8
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  1. Nitrates and nitrites are different. The cited proposal is to remove nitrite, not nitrate.
  2. Nitrates/nitrites are NOT "the only effective way of preventing botulism", else there would be many cases of botulism from the many products not containing nitrates/nitrites.
  3. A 20% reduction in cancer risk may be irrelevant to an individual - that is a personal judgement. Bodies such as EFSA and WHO rightly consider populations; a 20% reduction in cancer cases is very relevant.
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Old 30th December 2018, 10:19 AM   #9
drelda
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Originally Posted by baron View Post
I don't know much about it as I rarely eat processed meats, but this is what the BBC claimed research shows about eating nitrates in processed meat - a 20% increased risk.
The research they were quoting (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34615621) just says that processed meat increases risk, it doesn't point at nitrates as the cause. It also says that all red meat probably increases risk in the same way.

So eating more fruit and vegetables and less meat is healthier. I don't think that is very controversial.

Nothing about that research implies that removing nitrates/nitrites from cured meat production would affect that risk at all.

On the other hand there is plenty of evidence that removing nitrates/nitrites from cured meat production would dramatically increase the risk of botulism deaths, as well as other pathogens. Here is an example study that demonstrates that - https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewc...49&context=etd :
Quote:
Results from an evaluation of commercially available frankfurters, bacons and hams indicated that commercial natural and organic cured meats have more potential for pathogen growth than do conventionally cured products. In the event of product temperature abuse or microbial contamination, the commercial brands of frankfurters, hams and bacons that exhibited significantly greater growth than that of the nitrite-added control would likely cause illness and result in a food recall.
Historically bolulism used to kill a lot of people. Then science discovered how to prevent it using nitrites which decades of research has shown is safe when used appropriately. It seems like people are calling for that progress to be thrown away without any rational reason.

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Old 30th December 2018, 10:25 AM   #10
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Drelda

Thank you for posting the information - interesting. I had heard it mentioned, but had not yet looked it up.
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Old 30th December 2018, 10:33 AM   #11
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Originally Posted by drelda View Post
The research they were quoting (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34615621) just says that processed meat increases risk, it doesn't point at nitrates as the cause. It also says that all red meat probably increases risk in the same way.
That's not what the article you linked to says.

Quote:
Its report said 50g of processed meat a day - less than two slices of bacon - increased the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%.

Meanwhile, it said red meats were "probably carcinogenic" but there was limited evidence.
It makes a clear distinction between red meats, which have limited evidence to suggest they are carcinogenic, and processed meats, which attract a very specific 18% risk increase for daily consumption.

It further says

Quote:
It is the chemicals involved in the processing which could be increasing the risk of cancer.
thus eliminating any causes common to red meat.

Funnily enough the actual risk is identical to what I stated, which was a complete guess (I saw the TV news report, which didn't give these particular stats).

Quote:
In the UK, around six out of every 100 people get bowel cancer at some point in their lives.

If they were all given an extra 50g of bacon a day for the rest of their lives then the risk would increase by 18% to around seven in 100 people getting bowel cancer.
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Old 30th December 2018, 10:39 AM   #12
drelda
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Originally Posted by KAJ View Post
Nitrates and nitrites are different. The cited proposal is to remove nitrite, not nitrate.
Nitrates break down into nitrites. Nitrites are used in products like bacon that are cured for a week or two only. Nitrates are used in products that cure for longer as they slowly break down into nitrites allowing the curing process to continue for many weeks or months. When you have nitrates you inevitably get nitrites.

Originally Posted by KAJ View Post
Nitrates/nitrites are NOT "the only effective way of preventing botulism", else there would be many cases of botulism from the many products not containing nitrates/nitrites.
For cured meat products they are the only effective way of preventing botulism. Some people add the nitrate/nitrite via celery salt or something similar with a lot of natural nitrate and then claim its nitrate free but that's just a con.

Originally Posted by KAJ View Post
A 20% reduction in cancer risk may be irrelevant to an individual - that is a personal judgement. Bodies such as EFSA and WHO rightly consider populations; a 20% reduction in cancer cases is very relevant.
I agree 20% is significant - but where is the evidence this is anything to do with nitrates/nitrites? They showed that eating lots of salty, fatty meat was bad for you - not that removing nitrates/nitrites from cured meat would achieve anything. It would be surprising to me if it did achieve anything given that nitrates/nitrites are consumed in vastly greater amounts via vegetables, water and even saliva!
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Old 30th December 2018, 10:47 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by baron View Post
That's not what the article you linked to says.



It makes a clear distinction between red meats, which have limited evidence to suggest they are carcinogenic, and processed meats, which attract a very specific 18% risk increase for daily consumption.

It further says


Quote:
It is the chemicals involved in the processing which could be increasing the risk of cancer.
thus eliminating any causes common to red meat.
.
Umm, might it be the sodium phosphate? It's basically a 'soap', or wetting agent. It holds water in the meats, making them juicer and seemingly more tender. In large doses it acts as a laxative/ does things with the water in your bowels. So, bowel cancer?
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Old 30th December 2018, 10:50 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by drelda View Post
Nitrates break down into nitrites. Nitrites are used in products like bacon that are cured for a week or two only. Nitrates are used in products that cure for longer as they slowly break down into nitrites allowing the curing process to continue for many weeks or months. When you have nitrates you inevitably get nitrites.
A vast over-simplification. In some products in some circumstances nitrates break down into nitrites.
Originally Posted by drelda View Post
For cured meat products they are the only effective way of preventing botulism.
Contradicted by the BBC article you cited which says "producers of Parma ham had not used nitrites for 25 years and more recently Nestle in France and Finnebrogue in the UK had produced mass-market products such as bacon and ham that did not use chemical additives"
Originally Posted by drelda View Post
I agree 20% is significant - but where is the evidence this is anything to do with nitrates/nitrites? They showed that eating lots of salty, fatty meat was bad for you - not that removing nitrates/nitrites from cured meat would achieve anything. It would be surprising to me if it did achieve anything given that nitrates/nitrites are consumed in vastly greater amounts via vegetables, water and even saliva!
The evidence was considered by bodies such as EFSA and WHO. AIUI the purported danger is not from nitrates/nitrites per se but from nitrosamines which would not be produced by nitrates/nitrites in "vegetables, water and even saliva".
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Old 30th December 2018, 10:50 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by drelda View Post
.......at nitrates/nitrites are consumed in vastly greater amounts via vegetables, water and even saliva!
So the famous biochemist George Carlin was right when he said "Cancer is caused by swallowing small amounts of saliva over extended periods of time."
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Old 30th December 2018, 10:57 AM   #16
drelda
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Originally Posted by baron View Post
It further says :
Quote:
It is the chemicals involved in the processing which could be increasing the risk of cancer.
That just seems like speculation - they say could - its not what their study showed. They showed that eating lots of processed meat was bad for you. Not that switching it to nitrate/nitrite free processed meat would remove the risk.

Its not very surprising to me that eating lots of processed meat isn't good for you. It tends to have lots of salt, lots of fat etc, and at the cheaper end is often made with the worst quality ingredients.
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Old 30th December 2018, 11:20 AM   #17
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Originally Posted by KAJ View Post
Contradicted by the BBC article you cited which says "producers of Parma ham had not used nitrites for 25 years"
Parma ham is a whole muscle cured product which is dried a lot, so it is one of the least risky types of cured meat product. However the majority of producers around the world making similar products do use a nitrate cure, in order to reduce the risk further.

Originally Posted by KAJ View Post
and more recently Nestle in France and Finnebrogue in the UK had produced mass-market products such as bacon and ham that did not use chemical additives"
A lot of producers add natural ingredients that are high in nitrates/nitrites so they can say they don't add any 'artificially'. Some really don't cure the meat and its inherently more risky. See the study I linked to above where they tested various 'no nitrate' products against conventionally cured products and concluded the conventional way was much safer.

Basically I think the people making products that really don't have nitrate/nitrite are just winging it and I wouldn't be surprised if eventually there was a botulism outbreak where a bunch of people die and then the world will look at these issues very differently.

Originally Posted by KAJ View Post
The evidence was considered by bodies such as EFSA and WHO. AIUI the purported danger is not from nitrates/nitrites per se but from nitrosamines which would not be produced by nitrates/nitrites in "vegetables, water and even saliva".
Some people claim the nitrosamines are produced during digestion, in which case the other sources would lead to them. However I don't think that claim is well supported, they actually only form when food with nitrates/nitrites are cooked at very high temperatures. They are also produced when vegetables are cooked at high temperatures.

So its a bad idea to cook many things at very high temperatures. Much more of an issue for vegetables that often have much higher levels than any cured meat - but probably a good point that needs to be more widely understood.

None of that persuades me that removing nitrates/nitrites from cured meat would achieve anything other than eventually killing someone from botulism.
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Old 30th December 2018, 11:40 AM   #18
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Originally Posted by drelda View Post
So its a bad idea to cook many things at very high temperatures. Much more of an issue for vegetables that often have much higher levels than any cured meat - but probably a good point that needs to be more widely understood.
But vegetables are lower in protein. The "amine" part of nitrosamines comes from protein.

Who cooks vegetables at high temperature anyway? Seems unusual to me.
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Old 30th December 2018, 12:07 PM   #19
drelda
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Originally Posted by RecoveringYuppy View Post
Who cooks vegetables at high temperature anyway? Seems unusual to me.
Vegetables in a stir fry? Thats normally pretty high temperature I think, and probably not a good idea. I think the type of oil used for cooking is important too - some oils produce nasty chemicals when heated too much.

The reason normally given for why nitrates/nitrites in veg are not a problem is that they contain vitamin c, which reduces nitrosamine production a lot. Thats also one of the reasons why most cured meat producers add vitamin c (or a close cousin) to their products. In the US I believe its a legal requirement to add sodium ascorbate to bacon.

Last edited by drelda; 30th December 2018 at 12:11 PM.
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Old 30th December 2018, 12:58 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by drelda View Post
Basically I think the people making products that really don't have nitrate/nitrite are just winging it and I wouldn't be surprised if eventually there was a botulism outbreak where a bunch of people die and then the world will look at these issues very differently.
<snip>
None of that persuades me that removing nitrates/nitrites from cured meat would achieve anything other than eventually killing someone from botulism.
I agree that there is little evidence justifying action against nitrites. For an alternative review to the PhD thesis you linked see www .ncbi .nlm .nih .gov/pmc/articles/PMC6043430 (remove excess spaces). But that little evidence is non-zero and over-generalisations help your case no more than unsupported opinions ("I think", "I wouldn't be surprised").
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Old 30th December 2018, 02:31 PM   #21
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Originally Posted by KAJ View Post
I agree that there is little evidence justifying action against nitrites. For an alternative review to the PhD thesis you linked see www .ncbi .nlm .nih .gov/pmc/articles/PMC6043430 (remove excess spaces).
Thanks, that paper seems fair. Here is another paper I found - https://meatscience.org/docs/default...rsn=4232bbb3_8 Summary:
Quote:
Curing with nitrite has been used, essentially, for
thousands of years to produce safe and nutritious products
and to effectively preserve meat. Since the controversies
about the safety of nitrite that started in the mid-20th
century, much has been learned about nitrite and heme
chemistry and the overall metabolism of nitrogen oxides in
humans. Curing practices in the meat and poultry industries
have been adjusted using the knowledge obtained about
nitrosamine risks. The ongoing research focused on the
metabolism of nitric oxide, nitrite, and nitrate appears to
reaffirm the safety and benefits of current curing practices.
The challenge to meat scientists is two-fold. First, is to
continually broaden their understanding of curing in the
context of human physiology and metabolism of nitrite
and to keep current on the medical literature in this area.
The second is to effectively educate a broad community
of public health scientists, nutritionists, and the general
public about the fundamental role of nitrite in biology
in order to address their unfounded fears and concerns
about adverse health effects from consuming cured meat
and poultry products.

Originally Posted by KAJ View Post
and over-generalisations help your case no more than unsupported opinions ("I think", "I wouldn't be surprised").
Fair enough.
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