I have read that Nitrates are bad and should be avoided, but then in this thread Ellendra raises some interesting information that I hadn't heard. What do people think about using nitrates in food preservation?
I've made and eaten nitrate-free cured pork many times.
I stick with traditional methods that pre-date nitrates to know that they're safe. Whenever a recipe tester for my book asked if they could make my cured meat recipes with a meat other than pork, I always recommended to search around to see if that meat is traditionally preserved in that way or not. Some meats have a long history of nitrate-free preservation, and specific methods that are used for this, other meats might be more of an experiment.
I've also eaten nitrate-free bacon and ham prepared by a butcher in his usual way, just without the nitrates. There wasn't any celery juice or other nitrate source added, but they were both hot smoked, so that might impact the safety of it, as well as how long it will keep for.
I think there is a LOT of misdirected blame directed at nitrates. As said, there are a LOT more nitrates in leafy greens. I think the health issues they found in people that ate a lot of processed meat came from the other issues with the meat and diet: the poor quality of the animal's diet and life, the other preservatives and processes that removed or bound more nutrition, and the sugar laden diet of the people in the study.
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From what I've read, it's not nitrates per se that are the issue. It's the combination of nitrates and red meat that raise health concerns.
Some might argue that food safety in the short term is also important for public health, and there is merit in that. From a personal point of view, I am limiting my intake of processed meats anyway, reducing the long-term risk.
Note that nitrates are not absolutely necessary for mass produced products. I recently purchased some nitrate-free pepperoni from Costco that was stable at room temperature in the sealed package. (I use it as a condiment, not a staple.) So, there are other processes that are valid for preservation.
Douglas Alpenstock wrote:From what I've read, it's not nitrates per se that are the issue. It's the combination of nitrates and red meat that raise health concerns.
This is close to my understanding as well. Nitrates convert to nitrites. Nitrites, when our body converts then to nitric oxide, are super healthy. Nitrites can also convert to nitrosamines, though. Nitrosamines are carcinogenic. What prevents nitrites from converting to nitrosamines are various phytonutrients, some of which are found in all plants. So if the nitrites are in plants, you're good, great! If the nitrites get added to meat, there are no phytonutrients to prevent the conversion to nitrosamines, so that's what happens. When you eat the meat, you're not even eating nitrites, but already converted nitrosamines.
Jan White wrote:What prevents nitrites from converting to nitrosamines are various phytonutrients, some of which are found in all plants. So if the nitrites are in plants, you're good, great! If the nitrites get added to meat, there are no phytonutrients to prevent the conversion to nitrosamines, so that's what happens.
Because there's a synergistic relationship amongst components in a natural system, in this case plants which contain naturally occurring nitrates. When nitrates are isolated and used as additives in meat preservation, the balance of that synergy isn't there.
So my personal take on the answer James's question is that the wiser course would probably be to omit them in the preservation process.