The surge in bacon as a flavoring in everything from chocolates and soaps to ice cream and soda also brings a return in considering the many reasons to avoid it, from the excess fat and sodium content to the ethical issues in raising and slaughtering pigs. But there’s another reason for caution found in the often-overlooked fine print on the label: Nitrites.
Used as a preservative in processed meats, sodium nitrite (and sodium nitrate) helps to delay the onset of serious toxins like botulism. It also helps to enhance the bright colors associated with processed meats, and their intense flavors, which are often spiced and seasoned unlike fresh cuts of meat. Salt has been used to dry and preserve meats (and most everything else, too) for thousands of years, but the advent of sausages, bolognas, hot dogs and bacons came with more intense preservation needs. and nitrites were added to salts for curing and preserving.
While nitrites have a potentially fatal dosage for humans (22 to 23 milligrams per kilo of body weight—or in other words, a 154-pound adult would need to eat nearly 20 pounds of bacon in one sitting), they’re more commonly linked with being a human cancer risk, even though the FDA categorizes them as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe).
Here’s where it gets tricky: Nitrates are widely found in vegetables such as celery, cabbage, spinach and beets; as much as 90 percent of nitrites found in the human digestive tract can be linked to vegetable matter rather than coming from meat. And while there are some risks (mostly for infants) in ingesting large amounts of plant nitrates, it’s th synthetic nitrites that break down with amines (a type of protein) and can form nitrosamines, which have been linked with a number of different types of cancer.
Of all the cured and processed meats, bacon typically contains the most detectable levels of nitrites; and the high temperatures required for cooking bacon lead to the formation of nitrosamines.
Many processed meat producers are now using celery powder because of its naturally occurring nitrates instead of the synthetics like sodium nitrite, which besides being linked to cancer, can contain toxic heavy metals such as lead and arsenic. While technically still nitrites, these natural preservatives allow for manufacturers to claim on their products, “no nitrites added.”
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