Americans love their food labels: “natural,” “cage-free,” “fresh.” On one stunning occasion in my local grocery store, I read the label, “gluten free” on the side of a whole chicken. Trust me, every chicken, regardless of how it’s raised, is gluten-free.
But there is one label that I think a lot of butchers dread having to respond to: “Nitrate-free.” Or is it, “nitrite-free?”
You see, nitrates and nitrites—once the preserving darling of meat makers the world over—have been given a bit of a black eye in recent decades. For years, researchers have been encouraging us to eat less red meat, and especially processed meats. But in 2015, a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer really didn’t beat around the bush any longer and listed processed meats as a cancer cause, right up there with cigarettes and nuclear reactors. This certainly wasn’t a new discovery (in fact the paper just looked at more than 800 other studies on the subject), but the article also emphasizing that processed meats with high concentrations of nitrates or nitrites seemed to represent the greatest risk for cancer. Suddenly, Americans were demanding meats cleansed of these dastardly chemicals, and the food label experts were stamping hot dogs, sausages, and bacon with “no added nitrates,” “nitrite-free,” and “no nitrates.”
What is a consumer to do? Let’s start with some high school chemistry.
Nitrates and Nitrites are often used synonymously to describe two distinct but similar compounds. Both are inorganic chemical salts made up of nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrates are the more common and more stable bigger brother, including three oxygen atoms for every nitrogen atom. Nitrites are the ornery younger brother with only two oxygen atoms. Nitrites tend to also be blamed for all the health problems. More on that a little later.
Nitrates have been used for thousands of years. The Romans and Chinese used saltpeter (a sodium nitrate) to preserve their extra piggy parts. The salty taste also intensified flavors. In the early 1900s, scientists realized that when Sodium Nitrate naturally turned into Sodium Nitrite, at had two added benefits. Nitrites prevent oxidation, which means they keep cooked meats looking rosy and pink longer. Leave our nitrite-free chicken liver mousse on the table long enough and you’ll experience how quickly untreated charcuteries change color when exposed to the air. This doesn’t affect the flavor, but there’s truth to the saying, we eat with our eyes.
These same scientists discovered that nitrites prevent the pesky bacteria clostridium botulinum. This introverted microbe likes dark, quite, oxygen-starved environments, like canned foods and cured/encased meats. When consumed, it can cause botulism, a paralyzing and sometimes fatal illness that killed thousands every year before the discovery. Ironically, it’s also the active ingredient in the plastic surgery injection Botox.
Believe it or not, nitrates and nitrites are in almost every food we eat. In fact, 50-80% of the nitrites and nitrates we consume come from cancer-preventing vegetables, not meats. And it gets better. More often than not, after we ingest them, nitrates and nitrites are further broken down by our body into nitrous oxide, which can actually help with blood flow, circulation, and preventing heart attack.
Many experts would go further and say that nitrates on their own are pretty harmless, and probably very important to human digestion and circulation. In fact, human saliva naturally produces levels of nitrates in the body, although why it does is not entirely understood.
So when do these compounds go wrong?
Here’s the scenario. Nitrates turn into nitrites through a chemical process called reduction. This happens frequently in nature. However, when those nitrates-turned-nitrites are exposed to high heat (i.e. a hot frying pan), they start to break down into other less stable compounds. Finally, if these nitrites break down or denature in a protein-rich environment full of amino acids—say a delicious slice of bacon—they can then mutate into…..nitrosamines.
Nitrosamines are bad juju. Like, really bad. These guys are some of the most potent carcinogens out there. They were made infamous in the 1960s as the main cancer-causer in cigarette smoke. Not surprisingly, when found in high concentrations in meats like bacon, nitrosamines have also been linked to increased incidences of colorectal cancer.
But don’t despair!!! You don’t have to write off bacon yet. Let me share some thoughts on how to avoid this—still theoretical—risk of cancer, and continue to enjoy America’s favorite breakfast meat.
First, you might feel better to know that today’s preserved meat products contain much less added nitrate or nitrite than they did just a few decades ago. Even your commercially produced bacon is better than Mom and Dad’s.
Secondly, if you’re still worried about avoiding nitrates or nitrites, buy local or from farmers markets. This is because a lot of small-batch charcuteries sold at artisanal butcher shops, farmers markets, and restaurants aren’t required to use curing salts. These products are often made with more care from better-sourced animals by someone you can look in the eye and ask, “have you used pink salt today?” At ECB, our bacon has no pink salt, and only a small number of our charcuterie recipes have curing salts in them. If asked, we can always substitute ingredients.
The third suggestion is all about cooking technique. Remember, nitrites only turn to the dark side when they are, well, burned. Keeping meats below 212°F prevents the ideal environment for nitrosamines to appear in the first place. This is easier to achieve with pates and terrines that customarily are baked until internal temperatures reach 160-180°F. But bacon is trickier. It’s nearly impossible to make bacon in a skillet without exposing some edge of the meat to temperatures that can exceed 600°F! You could try the oven (my preferred method for making bacon) where the heat is more predictable, but studies have suggested baking still gets things too hot.
South Korean researchers tested several techniques and found that the best carcinogen-preventing method for cooking bacon was…the microwave.
I think I’d rather go vegan.
Honestly, if you’re still anxious about eating bacon, I recommend pouring yourself a glass of orange juice, maybe with a little splash of Prosecco. Not only will the bubbly calm your nerves, but it turns out that the Vitamin C in your OJ actually has nitrosamine-slaying properties.
Cancer-fighting Mimosas? I’ll drink to that!