The Huffington Post, Bacon and Nitrites

I recently had the opportunity to write an article for the Huffington Post’s new Food for Thought section.  So, I decided to shed some light on a common misconception surrounding one of America’s favorite proteins…. BACON!

Below is a reprint of the article.

Also check it out over on the Huffington Post site and join in the conversation.

The Nitrite Nightmare

Some call it meat candy while others would say it’s the equivalent to angels dancing across your taste buds. That’s right folks, its BACON! I think it’s safe to say bacon is one thing that most all carnivores can agree on.

But wait! Sure, bacon is a wonderful and in most cases “put you in a good mood” go to meat product; but I’ve been hearing some not so good stuff about it lately. For instance, did you know there are nitrites in bacon and well, that some say cause cancer? So sorry folks, no more bacon. Might as well just go ahead and cancel next year’s “Bacon Fest.”

Bacon Cancer

Is this really an end to the carnivores delight?

Before you call for a refund on next year’s Bacon Fest tickets, let’s talk. We actually may be jumping the gun just a bit.

Photo by Jenny Dewey Rohrich of Chico Locker and Sausage Co. Chico, Ca

Photo by Jenny Dewey Rohrich of Chico Locker and Sausage Co. Chico, Ca

Sure, there is an ingredient called sodium nitrite in most bacon. This is actually a pretty common ingredient found in a variety of processed meats from hotdogs to deli meats. In fact, meat processors have been using sodium nitrite in cured meat products for hundreds of years. Sodium nitrite helps increase the shelf life of products by decreasing nasty organisms that cause food-borne illnesses, and protects the flavor of the meat while also enhancing the color of the product. Nitrites are what cause the nice pink color in cured hams, hotdogs and, of course, BACON!

Sodium nitrite is kind of a scary word. Let’s be honest, it sounds like a lot of chemistry goes into explaining what a nitrite really is. Plain and simple, nitrites act as a form of food safety by eliminating disease causing bacteria and preventing food spoilage. Since nitrites and nitrates are comprised of a nitrogen atom and two (nitrite) or three (nitrate) oxygen atoms, it can be very harmful if you ingest three to five grams of the stuff in its pure form. Though three to five grams isn’t much, it’s enough to cause death in some cases. But not to worry: consuming three to five grams of nitrite in one sitting would be equivalent to 6,000-10,000 servings of nitrite cured meat in one sitting.

Most nitrites consumed from processed meats are synthetic nitrites, however there are quite a few natural occurring nitrates in everyday products and vegetables like butter lettuce, beets and celery. To put things into perspective; two servings of beets or celery have more nitrite than 467 hotdogs!

HamSo can nitrites build up in your body? The simple answer is no, nitrites are actually depleted before they have a chance to build up. The majority of nitrites are excreted through urine within five hours of ingestion. The human body actually produces nitrites naturally. Salivary nitrites (those produced by your salivary glands) account for the majority of your total nitrite exposure due to the fact that most nitrite (50-70 percent) is consumed through fruits and vegetable. Post consumption nitrate is converted to nitrite after coming in contact with your saliva.

Recent studies have actually shown that the exposure to nitrites are beneficial for immune and cardiovascular function and are being studied as a potential treatment for hypertension, heart attacks and sickle cell and circulatory disorders.

So whether your taste leans towards more of commodity-type bacon or niche market artisan bacon, one thing is for sure: you can enjoy every chewy or crispy slice to the end with no worry.

3 thoughts on “The Huffington Post, Bacon and Nitrites

  1. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this post to dispel my bacon angst. All’s well now, bacon really is the answer. Thank you for sharing! There are so many food stories like this that need to be told – thanks for putting it out here!

  2. Very nice article, calm, rational, and informative. I’ll be sure to share it with my customers who are concerned about nitrates in their bacon. I do have a question along this line though, my niece has some health problems and they have finally pinpointed nitrates as causing her headaches. I’m assuming they mean synthetic nitrates, since she can still eat greens and such. What is the difference between synthetic and natural nitrates? Thanks!

    Stacy Handy Crum Creek CSA Mohawk Valley FarmieMarket-regional manager

    • Israel and Stacy, Thanks for your comment. Regarding your question, “is there a difference between synthetic and natural nitrites” the answer is no.

      Nitrites are a chemical compound that can be made and occur naturally (NO2) consisting of a nitrogen atom and two oxygen atoms. Most “all natural” or “organic” products that are sold on the market are actually cured using celery powder. The nitrite that occurs naturally in celery powder is exactly the same as synthetically produced nitrite and has the same effect on meat. The overall look will be a bit different because synthetic nitrite is actually sodium nitrite and colored pink so it is not confused with table salt.

      Hope this answers your question.

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