The possible dangers of food additives are often neglected by dieters and health-conscious individuals in general. After all, why would they be added to our food unless they provided some sort of benefit? Despite good intentions, sometimes food additives are best avoided because of unintended side effects. Nitrites may be a prime example.
What Are Nitrites?
Nitrites are a food additive that is often used to cure meat and fish. Nitrites are sometimes listed on nutrition labels as sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate. The point of curing any food is to inhibit future bacterial growth, which allows the food to have a longer shelf life. Nitrites have, for example, been essential in the prevention of botulism from dry-cured sausage among other meats. Thus, the original intention of nitrite was a benevolent one. In fact, nitrites themselves are not harmful. They are found naturally as antioxidants in fresh vegetables.
Are Nitrites Dangerous?
The real danger from nitrites arises from the potential side effects. When meat that is cured with nitrites is exposed to high temperatures, the nitrites change chemical structure to form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are a well known cancer-causing agent, or carcinogen, suspected of causing stomach cancer. It might be surprising to know that nitrosamines are also found in tobacco smoke. The United States has had health regulations governing the usage of nitrites as a food additive for some time, and their use is limited to 200 parts per million for finished products.
Nitrosamines are most likely to be formed during the high temperature frying of meat. One of the most likely scenarios for its formation occurs during the frying of bacon, which is often cured with nitrites. It is also theoretically possible for the conversion to happen within the acidic environment of your stomach, as acidity is a necessary component for the conversion. For example, eating uncooked deli meat cured with nitrites could result in the formation of nitrosamines in your stomach. But this is not where the danger really lies. Frying provides a much better environment for the conversion because of the high temperature and is thus the main focus of contention.
Are Nitrites Worth the Risk?
Considering what is known about nitrites now, and the potential unintended side effects of frying meat that’s been cured with it, why not eliminate nitrites entirely in favor of a safer alternative? The main reason is that despite its potential ill effects, nitrites invariably add flavor. In fact, nitrite adds a characteristic flavor to meat that many have come to enjoy and prefer. Take bacon for example. Nitrite-free bacon is available, but to many people it just lacks that characteristic flavor. Their taste buds prefer the nitrite-cured bacon. Also, nitrites turn meat into a visually appealing dark reddish hue, making it more attractive as well.
In the end, it’s hard to give up nitrites altogether because of its flavor and curing properties, both of which are beneficial. But you have to take the good with the bad. For your overall future health, it may be best to opt for the nitrite-free cured meat.