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Are nitrites and nitrates bad for you?  RSS feed

 
Destiny Hagest
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Why are nitrites and nitrates added to food?

Nitrites and nitrates are added to foods to prolong their shelf life, and give their color a boost. Most importantly though, these additives prevent the growth of dangerous food spoilage bacterium, like botulism.

Are there natural alternatives to manufactured nitrites and nitrates? Are they any better for you?

These compounds are actually found naturally occurring in produce like celery, which is why many meat producers include celery juice in their product. I'm generally of the opinion that anything in its naturally occurring form is going to be better for everyone involved, and gentler on your system, particularly because when you eat something with nitrates and nitrites in it, you're getting a menagerie of other vitamins and compounds in that plant that will react with each other, like Vitamin C, which inhibits the conversion of nitrates and nitrites into nitrosamines.

I can't speak to their efficacy with regards to spoilage prevention though - please feel free to share more information in this thread.

Are nitrites/nitrates bad for you?

Nitrite is toxic to humans, but generally only in very high amounts. It's been found that nitrites and nitrates can form nitrosamines in the body, which can increase your risk of developing cancer. Nitrosamines are carcinogenic compounds that are typically formed during cooking or digestion of foods with nitrites/nitrates.

Additionally, these additives are particularly harmful to young infants, who don't have the ability to properly process these compounds, and can cause 'blue baby syndrome' a rare, but fatal reaction to these compounds. Nitrites and nitrates have been linked to poor pregnancy outcomes as well.

So the real question is, which are we at greater risk for, botulism and food born illnesses, or complications from nitrites and nitrates?



This thread was created in response to some interesting conversation that was started in the Roam Sticks thread, where we have a farming family creating pasture-raised pork snack sticks.

Now, I am definitely not a chemist, and certainly not an expert in this topic, I just wanted to create a space for this conversation to go. Please feel free to build on these questions, correct any incorrect information, etc.
 
David Livingston
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Here in France there are lots of different types of dried sausage made from different animals ( even donkey ) also including nuts cheese and garlic . I have never seen any issues made about nitrates or nitrites even the Biocoop who have really high standards dont seem worried by this one .

David
 
John Polk
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As recently as 100 years ago, when refrigerators were not part of every household, most meat sold was somehow processed with nitrites/nitrates.  Meats were 'kashered' (liquids extracted with salt), then brined, and often then packed in salt.  Meats could keep for months without refrigeration.  Corned beef, pastrami, hams, bacon, sausages, and etc. were the mainstay meats.

'We' didn't eat nearly as much meat then as we do now.  But, even with that smaller portion of meat weekly, we were probably getting as many nitrites in our diet.  Which is our enemy: too much meat, or too much nitrites?

'Curing', as we do now, is more or less an insurance policy for the meat producers.  It keeps their product safer until it reaches the consumers.
 
Liz Hoxie
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Moderation in everything is the key.
 
John Weiland
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@David L: "Here in France there are lots of different types of dried sausage made from different animals...."

Was curious about the history of nitrates and nitrites in meat curing.  The following reference may be only for purchase, but contained the following excerpt:

"The origin of the use of nitrate in the curing of
meat is lost in history, but it is certain that the preservation
of meat with salt preceded the intentional use
of nitrate by many centuries.
The preservation of cooked meats and fish in
sesame oil in jars was practised as early as 3000 BC
in Mesopotamia. Early Summerians enjoyed dried
salted meat and fish as part of their diet. Indeed, salt
was considered a dietary essential by the ancient
Babylonians. Salt was in common use in the ancient
Jewish Kingdom as early as 1600BC because of its
availability from the salt-rich Dead Sea. The technology
of sea-salt production was also known by at
least 1200BC by the Chinese, who early made salt
from drilled wells (Jensen, 1953 & 1954).
It appears that meat preservation was first practised
in the saline deserts of Hither Asia and in coastal
areas. Desert salts contained nitrates and borax
as impurities. However, the reddening effect of
nitrates was not mentioned until late Roman times.
Thus, saltpetre, or 'nitre', was gathered in ancient
China and India long before the Christian era. Wall
saltpetre (Ca(NO3)2), found as an efflorescence on the
walls of caves and stables, was used by the ancient
peoples in the curing of meat. ...

...The Romans learned the use of salt from the
Greeks and cured pork and fish extensively. Salt was
apparently in scarce supply, as judged by the etymology
of the word 'salary' (salarium or allowance
of salt). By the time of Homer (900 BC), the curing
of meat with salt and by smoking were old practices.
The Romans learnt how to pickle various kinds of
meat, and the pickle contained other ingredients in
addition to salt. They established a trade for these
products in the Roman Empire (Jensen, 1954).
Cato (234-149 BC) gave excellent directions for the
dry-curing of hams, a process which included an
overhaul, rubbing with oil, smoking and again rubbing
with a mixture of oil and vinegar. Columella
(lst century AD) also gives detailed directions for the
dry-curing of pork. Interestingly enough, toasted salt
was recommended for dry-curing in a hot climate.
One can only speculate on the purpose of the toasting---was
it to destroy micro-organisms or to convert
some of the nitrate to nitrite (assuming that
nitrate was a natural contaminant of the salt)? The
use of salt and saltpetre in meat curing was commonplace
in mediaeval times, and the effect of saltpetre
on colour was recognized. Gradually, sweet pickle
and sugar cures evolved as sugar became available,
although the use of honey in curing had been practised
for a long time. "  --  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0015626475901571

It was news to me that the use of nitrate/nitrate salts went back that far into history.
Yet drying and salting of meat for preservation, even without nitrate/nitrite seems
common as well, even if ultimately exhibiting a slightly different flavor.
 
Jeremy Franklin
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I think it's worth saying, that while nitrates and nitrites sound very "chemically" like they were made up in a lab, these are both very common in nature   due to the fact that they are part of the ammonia cycle,  and in fact most likely exist in your own compost pile.  Anyone who keeps fish knows that the fish urine, as well as pretty much any excess biological material, produces ammonia, which is quite toxic to pretty much everything, except certain bacteria that like to eat it. From there, bacteria in the water or soil eat the ammonia and in turn, produce nitrites, also toxic though not by nearly as much.  The nitrites are further eaten by other bacteria, which produce nitrates, which are really only toxic in huge amounts. So basically, as I understand it, Any time you have any decomposing organic material, you'll have nitrites and nitrates present, though, I don't really know if the levels are the same as what we're taking about as a preservative.
 
Micky Ewing
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As with most nutrition questions, the answers aren't simple.  Here's an interesting article which points out possible benefits of nitrates and nitrites in the diet: http://www.pronutritionist.net/2010/08/nitrates-are-beneficial-where-did-i-get-it-wrong/
 
Julia Winter
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Pink salt is important in the production of bacon and ham, at least if you want it to taste and look as expected.  Botulism is a rare but real risk.  One of my pet peeves is cured meats that advertise themselves as being "nitrate free" but obviously have been treated with nitrate (generally via celery extracts) as evidenced by their pink color.  Truly nitrate free ham or bacon will be gray, like overcooked meat.

It's interesting to think that getting the nitrates from a celery extract might be better because the chemical will be accompanied by other compounds and nutrients, I hadn't thought of that.  Mostly I've read that "nitrate free" bacon tends to have more actual nitrate in it because the makers have to be very generous with their celery salt, to make sure the meat cures properly.  When I've made bacon or ham, I've used pink salt, in very small quanitites, generally per the instructions in Michael Ruhlman's book "Charcuterie."  I'm afraid I haven't made bacon since I moved to Portland, good pork belly is available but so very expensive in this town!  (In Wisconsin, we would buy a whole pastured hog from a farmer and butcher it ourselves.  We had a bigger kitchen then.)
 
Gay Hullar
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This article has a lot of good information on nitrates and nitrites. https://chriskresser.com/the-nitrate-and-nitrite-myth-another-reason-not-to-fear-bacon/
 
William Bagwell
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Liz Hoxie wrote:Moderation in everything is the key.


Remember, moderation in all things, except, perhaps, dietary diversity!
-- James A. Duke

Wife's favorite quote, which I get to use a bit more often than her since I'm the forum junkie.
Oh, interesting thread!
 
Melissa Sullivan
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I actually learned about this in a toxicology course in college, so I'll share what I gleaned:
As you mentioned, it's not really the nitrates/nitrites which are the issue, they are naturally occurring and a very high dose of those chemicals would be needed to be toxic. The bigger concern are the nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. Because they are carcinogenic, there is no "safe" concentration of these chemicals that can be ingested.

The nitrites in preserved meats react with the protein in the meat to form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines will form anyway in meat, but their formation is greatly enhanced by high heat conditions or by acidic conditions (your stomach). The higher the temperature, the more nitrosamines form. The BBQ is particularly bad because it is not as controlled as an oven; portions of the meat will be subject to really high temperatures and char, which greatly increases nitrosamine formation, as well as the formation of many other bad chemicals.
 
Micky Ewing
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Melissa Sullivan wrote:...
The bigger concern are the nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.
...

Thanks for that post Melissa.  Very interesting.  Even more interesting when considered side by side with Gay's linked article, which nearly managed to avoid mentioning nitrosamines completely.  With all the recent press extolling the virtues of nitrates and nitrites, I think I'm starting to pick up the faint odor of an industry lobby at work.
 
Jerry McIntire
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Melissa Sullivan wrote:The BBQ is particularly bad because it is not as controlled as an oven; portions of the meat will be subject to really high temperatures and char, which greatly increases nitrosamine formation, as well as the formation of many other bad chemicals.


Another reason to emulate the cooks of Argentina whose practice is to grill at much lower temperatures, for a much longer time, than is typical in the U.S. The test is to hold your hand at the same distance from the coals as the meat will be/is. If you can't hold your hand there for ten seconds without getting too hot, there are too many coals or the grill surface is too close to the coals. Most "parillas" in Argentina let you adjust the height of the grill. It can take over 60 minutes to grill a nice 1 1/2" thick steak, but that's why there are "fiambres," cold cuts and antipasti to enjoy while you are waiting and talking with family and friends during the grilling process.
 
Destiny Hagest
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Melissa Sullivan wrote:I actually learned about this in a toxicology course in college, so I'll share what I gleaned:
As you mentioned, it's not really the nitrates/nitrites which are the issue, they are naturally occurring and a very high dose of those chemicals would be needed to be toxic. The bigger concern are the nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. Because they are carcinogenic, there is no "safe" concentration of these chemicals that can be ingested.


Since you have an educational background in this subject, I'd love to know your thoughts on naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites in celery juice, versus those that are synthetically manufactured - do these still run a relatively high risk of being carcinogenic, even though they're accompanied by Vitamin C, which inhibits the growth of nitrosamines? And if not, is there a concern with celery salt versus celery juice, for that reason?

Thank you so much for chiming in! I'm learning a lot from everyone's commentary here! I'm a side pork person myself - we just ordered a half hog from the local pork people, and specified no cured meats, so we thought about trying our hand at curing hams, since we'll be getting shoulder roasts instead. This thread is a fitting one for sure
 
Chrissy Star
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A quick search on Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com.au/scholar?start=10&q=food+preservation+nitrates,+nitrites,+review&hl=en&as_sdt=0,5) provides some interesting results, including:

"Human safety controversies surrounding nitrate and nitrite in the diet"
http://www.mapleleaffoods.com/wp-content/themes/maplecorporate/pdf/evidence%20for%20nitrate%20and%20nitrite%20benefits_journal%20of%20food%20protection.pdf

"Ingested nitrate and nitrite and stomach cancer risk: an updated review"
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/James_Coughlin/publication/230665462_Ingested_nitrate_and_nitrite_and_stomach_cancer_risk_An_updated_review/links/0c96051adfa829e6a8000000.pdf

"Evidence that ingested nitrate and nitrite are beneficial to health"
http://www.mapleleaffoods.com/wp-content/themes/maplecorporate/pdf/evidence%20for%20nitrate%20and%20nitrite%20benefits_journal%20of%20food%20protection.pdf

"Nitrate and nitrite quantification from cured meat and vegetables and their estimated dietary intake in Australians"
http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/42717944/Nitrate_and_nitrite_quantification_from_20160215-28474-ulwf8u.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1476931156&Signature=Zd27zJjaK8Rhycz%2ByzUeSqceSb4%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DNitrate_and_nitrite_quantification_from.pdf

"Nitrate in vegetables: toxicity, content, intake and EC regulation"
http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/44229560/Nitrate_in_vegetables_toxicity_content_i20160330-22457-wdvwnr.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1476931633&Signature=Q8621lMNMhuXqbKzo53mZXA4rJE%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DNitrate_in_vegetables_toxicity_content_i.pdf



 
Chrissy Star
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Destiny Hagest wrote: asked about naturally occuring vs. synthetic nitrites/ates.

I have an idea for a theory (which I may or may not develop into a research project at a later date) which may be of interest for this subject....

Do naturally occuring molecules contain more stable isotopes than synthetic molecules?  The idea behind this, is that there are molecules which have been in their form for possibly millions of years - for example a soil mineral which was part of a rock then taken up by a tree to be make into an essential oil extracted by man.  And others which were made in the lab over the last say - 5 to 10 years.  Thus, in the naturally occuring molecule - any isotopes will have had millions of years to reach a stable point and no longer emit radiation. 

...sorry, another topic I know - but just thought I would add it for Destiny's interest.
 
David Livingston
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Chrissy I would be very surprised if the Isotopic composition of Nitrogen was much different in either case as any nitrogen used in industry comes not from rocks but from the air see the Haber process invented by the Germans in WWI  http://www.chemguide.co.uk/physical/equilibria/haber.html
 
Chrissy Star
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It would depend on how long the molecule had been around for - the length of time the isotopes (including nitrogen) had to decay and reach a stable point.  Sorry to hijack thread - lets get back to topic?

 
Chaya Foedus
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You are choosing to add natural versions to your home cooking anyway, so I don't mind doing it a bit intentionally when making something like homemade sausage, etc.  Traditional spices for meat dishes were chosen for those very reasons so if you are forgoing them, then you are forgoing flavor.   I use the celery seed or celery salt from Pantry Paratus just for that reason (and yes, that's a shameless plug)...but our sausage wouldn't be the same without SOMETHING.  If you're eating so much homemade sausage as to run the risks presented by Nitrites from the celery seed, then you are going to die from the sausage first. 
Here's the link to the celery seed which is *currently* 30% off anyway:  http://pantryparatus.com/product/whole-celery-seeds-1-lb-foil-bag/
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://stoves2.com
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