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 cancer , colon 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.
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