There is lots of confusion around nitrites present in lunch meats. We have heard over and over from the media that they cause cancer.
But let’s look at what science says about this specific concern.
Nitrates and nitrites are frequently added to processed meats like bacon, ham, sausages and hot dogs. They function as preservatives, helping to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria
Still, if you wanted to avoid this preservative, you would have to cut out more than just ham to go cold turkey on nitrite. In a typical person’s diet, 80 percent of nitrite comes from vegetables such as spinach, radishes and lettuce, and another 13 percent comes from swallowed saliva.
How is it possible for a substance that seems unhealthy to be so abundant in the body, and in healthy foods?
The answer is simple, this substance is safe!
There’s no difference whatsoever in the nitrite that you get from cured and processed meats versus what you get from vegetables. It’s the same molecule
Evidence is mounting that nitrite preservatives are safe, but that doesn’t mean processed meats are healthy.
In fact, nitrites are produced by your own body in greater amounts than can be obtained from food, and salivary nitrite accounts for 70-90% of our total nitrite exposure. In other words, your spit contains far more nitrites than anything you could ever eat.
Indeed, when it comes to food, vegetables are the primary source of nitrites. On average, about 93% of nitrites we get from food come from vegetables.
It may shock you to learn that one serving of arugula, two servings of butter lettuce, and four servings of celery or beets all have more nitrite than 467 hot dogs.
And your own saliva has more nitrites than all of them! So, before you eliminate cured meats from your diet, you might want to address your celery intake. And try not to swallow so frequently.
Recent evidence suggests that nitrites are beneficial for immune and cardiovascular function; they are being studied as a potential treatment for hypertension, heart attacks, sickle cell and circulatory disorders. Even if nitrites were harmful, cured meats are not a significant source.
And if you think you can avoid nitrates and nitrites by eating so-called “nitrite- and nitrate-free” hot dogs and bacon, don’t be fooled.
These products use “natural” sources of the same chemical-like celery and beet juice and sea salt, and are no more free from nitrates and nitrites than standard cured meats. In fact, they may even contain more nitrates and nitrites when cured using “natural” preservatives.
In general, the bulk of the science suggests that nitrates and nitrites are not problematic and may even be beneficial to health.
Critical reviews of the original evidence suggesting that nitrates/nitrites are carcinogenic reveals that in the absence of co-administration of a carcinogenic nitrosamine precursor, there is no evidence for carcinogenesis.
Newly published prospective studies show no association between estimated intake of nitrite and nitrite in the diet and stomach cancer.
Nitric oxide, formed by nitrite, has been shown to have vasodilator properties and may modulate platelet function in the human body, improving blood pressure and reducing heart attack risk.
Nitrates may also help boost the immune system and protect against pathogenic bacteria.
In summary, nitrites and nitrates are safe for human consumption and are beneficial. Therefore, there is no reason to ditch bacon!