What’s breakfast without bacon or a sandwich without ham?
Although these meats make for convenient tasty meals or side options, they can harm your health. Cured meats are loaded with salt, preservatives and sugar, and there’s much debate about the health of the process of preservation for meat, fish and vegetables.
There’s also a lot of confusion about nitrates and nitrites in food. These two compounds are found naturally in vegetables and added to processed foods (like bacon) as a preservative.
The debate about the two compounds range from being harmful by playing a role in causing cancer, to studies suggesting that they may boost your health.
The lowdown on nitrates and nitrites
Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are salts used in curing or preserving meat and fish. Sodium nitrate is found naturally in green veggies like celery and spinach, root veggies like carrots, and some fruits and grains.
Sodium nitrite, on the other hand is the compound that actually contains the antimicrobial properties needed in the production of bacon, hot dogs, and salami.
In the production of products like bacon, ham and hot dogs, which aren’t fermented; straight sodium nitrite is added. Other uses for sodium nitrite include adding a salty flavour and boosting that distinctive reddish-pink colour that’s common in processed meats.
Without sodium nitrite, these products don’t last very long on the shelf.
For example in salami, sodium nitrate is added during preparation and it then breaks down during the fermentation process into sodium nitrite, which helps prevent the growth of botulism bacteria and spoilage.
Should you be worried?
Many experts argue that when exposed to high heat in the presence of amino acids, nitrites can turn into nitrosamines, harmful compounds linked to health complications.
A higher intake of nitrites may be linked with conditions like an increased risk of colon cancer, Type 1 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
Still, it’s not yet clear if this is through the nitrates or other compounds in processed meat. To cut your risk of colon cancer; eat very little processed meats or avoid them altogether.
Some scientific panels have evaluated sodium nitrite and concluded that it may be safe as it helps prevent the growth of botulism bacteria.
While there isn’t enough scientific research on the safety of nitrates and nitrates, limit your intake of sodium and processed meats, and choose more whole and nutritious foods as part of a healthy, low-sodium diet.