Hot dogs are a staple at summertime barbeques, and label-conscious consumers probably reach for products labeled “uncured” or “no nitrates or nitrites added.” But what do those labels actually mean, and are you getting what you pay for?
Since the 1970s, numerous health problems including colon cancer have been linked to preservatives called nitrates or nitrites—or, more specifically, nitrosamines, which are carcinogens created when nitrites are combined with meat proteins.
Many meat producers use a synthesized version of nitrites called sodium nitrite to prevent decoloration and spoilage from bacteria like the kind that causes botulism. Natural foods producers tried making products that were completely nitrite-free, but consumers didn't like them—the color and taste were both "off" from the processed versions we were used to.
So, many natural meat companies switched to natural forms of nitrites that have been used for centuries, usually derived from celery. And voila! Natural nitrites.
From the Organic Authority Files
The problem, however, arisies from the labeling. The USDA labeling rules require products that use natural sources of nitrites to display the “uncured” or “no nitrates or nitrites added" banner prominently on the packaging—even though the product is cured and does contain nitrites. The products are also required to note that they may contain "naturally ocurring" nitrites, but this is usually put in very small print.
According to a New York Times article, natural meat companies like Applegate Farms have proposed alternate wording for the labels without much success. "They say they are confident their products offer enough other benefits—all natural ingredients, meeting the standards for the humane treatment of animals, for example—that it is best to be upfront with consumers about the preservatives. Ms. Boardman [president of Applegate Farms] said tests showed the amount of nitrite and nitrate in Applegate products was similar to conventional brands."
And, unfortunately, that is another little kink in the natural nitrites problem: a study published in 2011 in The Journal of Food Protection found that natural products could have fewer nitrites than convention, or up to 10 times as much. Just being from natural sources did not have an effect on the amount of nitrites the food contained.
How much does it matter?
Research continues to point to processed meats—including hot dogs, lunch meat, and bacon—as being bad for your health—contributing to risk for heart attacks, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. But whether it is the nitrites that produce this risk or a combination of other factors is still up for debate.