CP editorial: Consumers have misconceptions about nitrates in meats

A consumer is browsing the meat section when they spot it — that package of thick sliced, smoked bacon that they just can’t wait to fry on the stove.

Some shoppers only worry about how their bacon will taste. Others search for a package of nitrate free uncured meat. What the majority of consumers don’t realize is that there’s no real nitrate free option.

Nitrate is a naturally occurring form of potassium that is commonly used while curing and preserving meats such as bacon. Once the nitrates react with the meat tissue, they form sodium nitrites. Sodium nitrites play a key role in preserving meat, and they give cured meat its distinct red color. They provide a sharp flavor that consumers associate with cured meats.

Sometimes nitrites can scare meat customers away because they believe that nitrites are harmful to our bodies.

Nitrites are only harmful if they are consumed in very large quantities. Everyday foods such as vegetables actually contain low levels of nitrates. These are found in nature and have not yet reacted to form sodium nitrite yet. People can safely consume nitrites, but they need to make sure they only consume processed meat in moderation. While it would be a bad idea to eat hotdogs and bologna for every meal, eating these foods a few times a week isn’t harmful. Nitrites can actually help to slow down bacterial growth during the curing process. An article titled “Nitrates: The Good, The Bad, The Truth,” states that nitrates specifically help to slow down botulism, which is a kind of food poisoning that can occur after consuming meat that has not been preserved correctly.

The term nitrite free is especially confusing when it comes to labels. When choosing products at the grocery store, nitrite-free labels mislead consumers because they imply that the product doesn’t have any nitrates, which isn’t true.  Poor product labeling adds to the disconnect between producer and consumer.  

In addition, research has shown that the number of nitrites in our food has been steadily decreasing over the years. According to the article “The Good, Bad, and Ugly: Nitrites and Their Role in Preserving Meats” by Emma Christensen, the extra nitrates in cured meats must be less than 200 parts per million, which is equal to 0.0002 percent in the U.S. So, we have even less to worry about.

If consumers are concerned about nitrites in their meat, there are some alternatives. The most common natural substitute for sodium nitrite is celery juice. It has the same effect on meat as sodium nitrite would due to celery’s naturally occurring high nitrate levels.

Because celery juice is plant-based and does not contain sodium nitrite, manufacturers are allowed to label products that are preserved using celery juice as nitrite free. All meats that are going to be eaten later or stored in the freezer must be preserved some way. If processors don’t want to use sodium nitrite, they can resort to celery juice instead, but it also contains nitrates.  In reality, consumers are never going to eat meat that is actually free of nitrates unless they take it straight from the butcher’s table to the stove.