Since my family has been making some new food choices in hopes of living a longer/healthier life we have adopted a few “food rules.” Make no mistake, we ENJOY eating, we eat meat, AND we live on a budget – but we are not deprived. This may or may not be similar to your life style… and that is okay. But, here I will share a rule that we have adopted. You can adopt this rule too, or not. Either way, it will be okay with me. =)
There is a lot of controversy on whether or not nitrites are harmful for us. Some studies indicate that they are cause for cancer. First, let me explain what nitrites are: Nitrates (NO3) are naturally occurring compounds that are created when plants break down nitrogen during photosynthesis. When nitrates come in contact with certain bacteria they break down into nitrites.
It is not the nitrates that cause damage; your body metabolizes and converts them into nitrites. In adults, the conversion takes place in the saliva. In infants, it takes place in the gastrointestinal tract.
During the cooking process, nitrites combine with amines naturally present in meat to form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds. It is also suspected that nitrites can combine with amines in the human stomach to form N-nitroso compounds. These compounds are known carcinogens and have been associated with cancer of the oral cavity, urinary bladder, esophagus, stomach and brain.
Many foods, especially cured meats such as bacon and hot dogs, use nitrates to preserve color and maintain microbial safety.
Nitrites are also commonly found in many green vegetables, especially spinach, celery and green lettuce. However, the consumption of vegetables appears to be effective in reducing the risk of cancer. How is this possible? The explanation lies in the formation of N-nitroso compounds from nitrites and amines. Nitrite containing vegetables also have Vitamin C and D, which serve to inhibit the formation of N-nitroso compounds. Consequently, vegetables are quite safe and healthy, and serve to reduce your cancer risk.
So, vegetables are safe, and cured meat is questionable. Although there are studies that show both sides, (some say they cause cancer, some say we don’t consume enough to worry) I am taking a “better safe than sorry” approach. Also, we do know that added nitrates/nitrites in meats isn’t something naturally occuring – unlike those found in the vegetables mentioned above. So, I also have the opinion of whole foods are better and anything man-made or “tweaked” should be avoided or consumed in small quantities. That said, my family is choosing to avoid cured meats that have added nitrites/nitrates.
If avoided hotdogs, cold cuts, or other cured meats is just out of the question for you (as is for my family) you’ll be happy to know that there are lot of products on the market that are uncured and/or do not contain nitrites/nitrates.
Because of modern refrigeration methods, nitrites are now used more for the red color they produce (which is associated with freshness) than for preservation. It is also used to lengthen the products shelf-life. Nitrite-free hot dogs, while they taste the same as nitrite hot dogs, have a brownish color that has limited their popularity among consumers. When cooked, nitrite-free hot dogs are perfectly safe and healthy.
When we began buying natural products without nitrites/nitrates the first thing I noticed (as far as differences go) is that the nitrate/nitrite free products go bad much faster. In my opinion this isn’t a bad thing. It is much scarier to think that your meat takes weeks to go bad because of all the chemicals in it. We purchase nitrite/nitrate free lunch meat, hotdogs, and turkey bacon. Applegate Farms and Earth Fare both have products that are organic and nitrite/nitrate free that are tasty. There are other brands that are great too, I’m sure, but these are the brands available to me and are great.