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The Great "Nitrite Free" Marketing Racket Explained

Posted by Julia Smith on

We get a lot of questions about nitrates and requests for "nitrite free" bacon. There is a lot of fear and misinformation out there where this subject is concerned and it is tempting to just jump on the "nitrite free" marketing bandwagon. But the science just doesn't support it and we've decided to stand by our principles of transparency and consumer education on this one. So without further ado, here are the basic facts and we will leave it to you to make an educated choice:

Sodium nitrite blocks the growth of bacteria and prevents spoilage in age-cured meats. During the curing process, most of this nitrite forms nitric oxide, which binds to iron keeping the meat's colour pink. The remaining amount of nitrite that we actually ingest is less than 10 parts per million. 

Nitrite is not the devil. It is actually formed in our mouths, with salivary nitrite accounting for 70-97% of our total nitrite exposure. When we ingest nitrate it is converted to nitrite as it comes into contact with the bacteria in our saliva.

Nitrate and nitrite from any dietary sources does not accumulate in our body. It is simply excreted in the urine within about five hours. 

The primary source of nitrites in our diets is vegetables (on average, about 93%). While processed meats take most of the heat, they actually account for a very small amount of our nitrite consumption.

Average levels of nitrates (parts per million) in some common vegetables:

  • arugula: 4,677
  • basil: 2,292
  • butter lettuce: 2,026
  • beets: 1,279
  • celery: 1,103
  • spinach: 1,066
  • pumpkin: 874

Nitrate and nitrate have never been shown to cause cancer. They have to be consumed in HUGE quantities to be toxic and of course any chemical can be lethal if you ingest enough of it. To put it in perspective, you would have to eat somewhere between 2,222 and 4,444 hot dogs in a single meal to ingest a lethal amount of nitrite.

The confusion arises around the formation of nitrosamines which have been found to be carcinogenic in animals exposed to high levels. Nitrosamines can form from nitrites at very high temperatures (like frying bacon at 170 degrees Celsius). Ascorbates like vitamin C prevent the formation of nitrosamines so most processors add ascorbic acid to their cures to inhibit the formation of nitrosamines.  Fortunately, the natural acidity of our stomachs prevent the formation of nitrosamines so unless you are taking acid suppressants, your body is already equipped to safely process the levels of nitrates and nitrites found in our food.

Some processors are using celery powder and/or juice to cure meat and claiming it has "No Added Nitrites.". As you can see in the bulleted list above, celery contains plenty of nitrates... they just aren't adding any MORE nitrites... they are already there in the celery so technically they can claim "no added nitrites." Nitrite is nitrite. It doesn't matter where it comes from, it has the same chemical composition. We are not going to jump on the celery bandwagon because we can more accurately measure the amount of nitrite in our products by using sodium nitrate than celery powder. We want to ensure that there is enough to make our products safe but no more than necessary. 

So this whole "Nitrite Free Bacon" thing is just marketing hype that is taking advantage of people's fears. Don't fall for it. Know your food. Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Eat less meat but better meat. Avoid highly processed foods and don't eat things you can't pronounce. Enjoy your bacon... just go easy on the celery! ;)

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4 comments

  • A farmer I worked with this past summer explained to me the exact information you mention. It is interesting & important to do our own research on food.
    I’m not afraid of nitrites anymore!

    Monique Constant on
  • Angela, just to be clear, the refs from the NIH website say that nitrites affect function at the cellular level “… The resting metabolic rate was 4.2% lower after nitrate compared with placebo administration” and “… The administration of nitrite to human primary myotubes acutely inhibited respiration.” which means the cellular metabolism was adversely affected.

    A reader on
  • This is great. Thank you for demystifying this topic and doing the research for me. :)

    Angela Esplin on
  • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24500154
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21284982

    A reader on

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