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25 Mar

Sodium Nitrite: Another Reason to Avoid Processed Meats

It’s lurking in breakfast meats, lunchboxes and carving stations across the country. Sodium nitrite, that is: preservative and coloring additive extraordinaire. It’s undeniable that we have a penchant for processed foods in this country, and meats are no exception. Bacon, sausages, hot dogs, cold cuts, ham, packaged smoked meats, pates, Slim Jims (everybody’s favorite, right?) – meats many would consider part and parcel of the quintessential American diet. Many of us crave their delectable saltiness and welcome convenience, but are we paying a price for their processing, specifically when sodium nitrite is on the label?

It’s true that companies are increasingly introducing “sodium nitrate-free” products. (We’ve even seen nitrate-free, grass-fed, organic hot dogs out there. Interesting development.) And while we at MDA tend to think “the more natural and unadulterated the meat the better,” some processing techniques and ingredients raise more red flags than others, sodium nitrite being one of those.

So, what exactly is sodium nitrite, and what are its alleged crimes? As mentioned, it’s used in commercial meats as both a color “fixer” and a general preservative. The additive does everything from impeding the formation of botulism to keeping meat smelling and looking “fresh.” The USDA has imposed limits on the amount of sodium nitrite that can be used for processing purposes. Nitrites/Nitrates cannot exceed 200 ppm (parts per million). A “fatal dose” of sodium nitrite has been estimated at “22 to 23 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.” Although this is a hefty dose unreasonable for regular consumption, there’s concern about much smaller amounts of the preservative in infants and younger children because sodium nitrite impacts the how well hemoglobin transports oxygen in the body.

Nitrites, we should say, are related to but not the same as nitrates (PDF), which are present in many vegetables. When we eat nitrates, a small percentage of the nitrates is converted by the body into nitrites. A higher pH level in gastric juices results in more conversion of nitrates to nitrites. (Random note: Infants generally have a higher pH level in their digestive environment, which explains the guideline about limiting their intake of carrots.) Although vegetables constitute a fair amount our nitrite intake (after conversion), vegetables contain antioxidants that reduce the formation of nitrosamines, the real risk of nitrites.

What about those nitrosamines? When meat containing nitrites is heated (particularly at high temperatures), the result is nitrosamines, compounds that have been linked with health issues such as gastric cancercolon cancer, pancreatic cancer, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Additionally, this week the Archives of Internal Medicine published the results of a study that assessed the connection between types of meat consumption with mortality rate. Although the study leaves open many other avenues for explanation (more processed meat intake trends with lower produce consumption), the research offers one more suggestion against regular intake of conventional processed meat. (Check back tomorrow for a full critique of the latest red meat scare.)

While it’s true the studies/reviews vary in rigor, magnitude and date, the preponderance of research on the subject (including and beyond these studies) suggests that sodium nitrite is best avoided. Of course, we’re not suggesting anyone devote a significant part of their diet to cold cuts or other processed meats, but we’ll admit we loves ourselves some bacon. Easy rule of thumb: go nitrite-free. (And especially because these kinds of meats tend to be higher in fat – primary storage for toxins, we’d also recommend going organic or as close as possible to it.)

There will be times, however, when you aren’t in charge of the menu. If you find yourself at a family brunch emotionally obligated to partake of Aunt Betty’s bacon quiche or an Easter ham, rest assured you can mitigate the damage. Antioxidants, particularly vitamins C and E, inhibit the conversion of sodium nitrate into those nasty nitrosamines. Bacon, for example, generally includes ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or erythorbic acid for this purpose. And while the orange slice garnish on the brunch plate may get you in the right mindset, you’ll need more antioxidant power than that to do the job. Save yourself the sugar shock of a towering glass of O.J. and pop a good supplement before or with brunch instead. Bottoms up!

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the sodium nitrite question. Send ‘em on, and thanks for reading.

Further Reading:

5 Meats to Avoid

The Trouble with Cured Meats

Did Grok Really Eat That Much Meat?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. This is an excellent article! A friend of mine was recently told that the reason her young daughter is suffering from migraines, is due to nitrate intake. She ended up removing the processed meats, but was worried about the nitrates in vegetables. After reading this article, it FINALLY makes sense to why there is a concern with one but not the other. Thank you for clearing this up for soo many of us out here!!!

    Jaimie Schultz wrote on May 23rd, 2013
  2. First off, bought the applegate farms uncured beef dogs… Don’t really care for them I think they taste too salty. Second, Next time at the store began looking at the sodium contents of all the dogs and i found that uncured hotdogs have just as much or more sodium than the cured hotdogs. I saw a package of uncured dogs w/ 410 mg of sodium I think it was 31% of daily intake. So what’s the point of buying the uncured. I opted for the Boars Head lite hot dog, which had almost 50% less sodium, haven’t checked the actual sodium amounts of cured vs bacon yet but maybe it’s just better to go with lower sodium. Lastly most of the uncured items that say “no nitrates or nitrites added” usually also say “except for those naturally occurring in celery juice”

    Paul ianuale wrote on July 18th, 2013
    • Btw the board head lite hot dogs are really tasty, I think they taste the closest to a regular dog. The applegate ones iI took one bite and said why is so salty for an uncured hot dog, sure enough it has just as much sodium as regular. One more thing since I started eating paleo I was told on all the sites to save the bacon grease, cook with bacon grease and your saying don’t save it, don’t cook with it. It’s just like everything else your told to do this then the next week your told don’t do that… Srry for ranting it just sucks, we can never get a definitive answer for things.

      Paul ianuale wrote on July 18th, 2013
  3. Mark, so would beef jerky cured with celery juice instead of added sodium nitrite still have the same shelf life? I definitely don’t want to get botulism.

    Robert wrote on October 7th, 2013
  4. I would not worry about Nitrates or Nitrites from Vegetables that you cook or juice. I am concerned about those added to Bacon, Lunch meats etc. I buy the ones that are Nitrates or Nitrites free from whole foods, turkey, etc… that do not have celery powder in them. Not all meats need nitrates.

    I have tried the hotdogs before with celery powder and they were too salty and I did not feel well after eating them. So I avoid those also.

    Nitrites and Nitrates have often given me a headache so I have avoided them my whole life.

    But recently I have been eating conventional bacon, maybe a couple of pieces 2-3 times a week at my favorite restaurant near work. Which is more than I have ever eaten before. I plan to cut back to rarely again.

    I go by how I feel after I eat, if I get a headache, every level. I’m very sensitive to things and can tell what’s in my food by how I feel.

    I know one thing for sure… What you believe and think about your food is just as important as what’s actually in it or not… Ever heard of the Placebo effect, it’s cures diseases and the Nocebo is when what you believe actually causes harm. So the worst thing you can do is to label your food as bad and then eat it!

    A few hotdogs or pieces of bacon every year is not going to kill you… A steady diet of them I would not recommend.

    Follow the 90/10 or 80/20 rule Most of the time you eat good then don’t worry about the other 10-20 percent of the time. The stress from worrying about and not eating your favorite food is more harmful than the junk most of the time.

    Mark wrote on November 4th, 2013
  5. For myself, I am very sensitive to numerous synthetic sodium compounds (sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, etc.). They are migraine headache triggers for me, so eating any of them in any amount guarantees a full blown migraine headache the following day. For the following product; Applewood Smoked Uncured Bacon it lists the following ingredients: Pork prepared with water, salt, turbinado sugar, celery powder. I am happy to say that I do not suffer from any migraine headaches after eating this bacon. And to the best of my knowledge, I don’t seem to have any reaction to celery or celery powder, and dried celery has the following nutritional profile that can be found here.

    James wrote on December 21st, 2013
  6. Does frozen chicken breasts contain nitrate/nitrite??

    John wrote on January 25th, 2014
  7. I agree processed meats are awful. If you must eat meat, eat grass fed meat.

    Aqiyl Aniys wrote on February 15th, 2014
  8. All the chemicals and antibiotics that are put in meat is what makes meat so bad for us.

    Aqiyl Aniys wrote on February 25th, 2014

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