I fell for it too. When Nitrites became the new food Taliban, I went ahead and doubled the amount I spent on each pound of bacon I purchased to avoid the devil Nitrites, and the terrorism I was told they unleashed on my body.
Then, I started talking to some butchers, and some farmers, and some Universities- basically I started looking for answers from people besides the companies telling me nitrates were horrible for me (you know, the same ones selling the expensive bacon with “no added nitrites”.)
The best summary I found comes to us compliments of Harold McGee in the New York Times:
“Then there’s the ongoing saga of nitrite and nitrate, which give hams, bacon, hot dogs, bologna and other salt-cured meats their special color and tang. Nitrite reacts in the meat tissue to form nitric oxide, which binds tightly to the iron in myoglobin and turns it a stable red. Nitrite is also toxic to many microbes, including the bacteria that cause botulism, so it’s a critical preservative in cured sausages. For centuries meats were treated with a liberal mixture of salt and saltpeter, or sodium nitrate, which bacteria on the meat converted into nitrite. Nowadays manufacturers generally use very small quantities of pure nitrite, or a mixture of nitrite and nitrate.
In the 1970s, the nitrite and nitrate in cured meats fell under the suspicion that they might cause cancer. Later research showed that we get far more of these chemicals from vegetables like celery, spinach and lettuce. Their abundant nitrate comes from the soil and is turned into nitrite by bacteria living in our mouths.
Nevertheless consumers remain wary of nitrite-cured meats. And United States Department of Agriculture regulations forbid the use of pure nitrate or nitrite in foods labeled “natural” or “organic.”
So ingenious manufacturers figured out how to replace the pure chemicals with a mix of nitrate-rich vegetable extracts and bacterial cultures that convert the nitrate into nitrite. (Celery-juice powder, for one, is especially rich in nitrate and has little flavor of its own.) As a result, natural and organic hot dogs that once were quite drab are starting to look better.
According to a review from the American Meat Science Association, recent studies at Iowa State University show that careful formulation and processing can produce vegetable-cured hot dogs and hams that are quite similar to their nitrite-cured models in color and flavor. They are not, however, free of nitrites or nitrates, no matter what the label suggests.”
When Nitrates become bad for you:
Nitrates become bad for you when they turn into nitrosamines. Nitrosamines occur in cured meats due to the presence of amines and sodium nitrate, combined with heating at high temperatures. So, when you overcook or burn your bacon, things get ugly. Don’t burn your bacon folks, it tastes yucky and is bad for you.
How you can protect yourself:
Around 1970 it was discovered that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) inhibits nitrosamines formation. Consequently, the addition of 550 ppm of ascorbic acid is now required in the manufacture of cured meats in the U.S. Another antioxidant, alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), is added to some cured meats to inhibit nitrosamines formation. As a result of adding these antioxidants, there are now significantly lower levels of nitrosamines in fried bacon and other cured meats than there were years ago.
So, please eat lots of fruits and veggies with Vitamin C (peppers, OJ, mangos, etc) with your cured meats. Also, eat foods high in vitamin E (olive oil, nuts, tomatoes). And, of course, like anything else as good as bacon- moderation my friends.
Some links to articles that I like on this topic:
My personal favorite: Effect of Frying and other cooking conditions on NITROSOPYRROLIDINE FORMATION IN BACON