Are Cured Meats Killing Us? Fact vs. Myth
A simple Google search will confirm: yes, you are definitely increasing your GI cancer risk because of your weekly (or more) bacon indulgence.
Or are you?
Cured Meats Throughout the Ages
While our ingredients have changed, cured meats are nothing new. In fact, salt curing represented an important leap in human civilization and is thought to have originated around 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. Later on, around 850 B.C., another jump in food preservation was made: curing meats with saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, made longer preservations possible by controlling anaerobic bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum (botulism).
Although nitrates wouldn't actually be discovered until the 20th century C.E., it was recognized that this substance helped to prevent spoilage and that it preserved the pink color of meats.
Fast forward to present day and cured meats have become more of a fine art than a necessity. From salami, to smoked fish, to hams, and hot dogs, our options are nearly endless.
But we hear the message over and over to limit cured meats as much as possible, due to their harmful effects on our health.
How much truth to this is there?
Nitrates, Nitrites, & Nitrosamine
Both sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite can be used in the curing process, but nitrates must first be converted to nitrites by bacteria to be a useful preservative. Nitrite is a powerful antibacterial agent that slows the growth of almost all bacteria that cause food spoilage.
While we think of cured meats as primary sources of nitrites, salivary nitrite from oral bacteria actually accounts for somewhere between 70-97% of our total nitrite exposure!
Beyond that, up to 93% of our total dietary nitrates and nitrites come from vegetables, whether organic or conventionally grown. Did you know that arugula has over 4,000 ppm of nitrates, while a standard hotdog has around 10 ppm? Cured meats account for around 5-10% of our overall dietary nitrate/nitrite intake.
Once consumed, most nitrates are converted to nitrites in the mouth or stomach, and some of those nitrites can be converted to nitric oxide, which improves blood pressure and oxygen circulation. The remainder of the nitrates are excreted via urine—neither of these substances accumulates in the body.
In fact, nitrites have been linked to cardiovascular benefits, immune health, and control of pathogenic bacteria in our bodies, to name a few benefits. They're so important that our body will create its own.
So where does the bad rap come from?
As with most flawed dietary advice, its roots are in a partial truth, and a poorly done study.
The nitrate scare started with a report in the 1970s linking dietary nitrates to cancer in rats. Most people didn't hear the rest of the story, however: once peer reviewed, the preliminary study was discredited. Studies since then have shown no correlation between nitrate consumption and GI cancer.
Why nitrates from cured meats are demonized when vegetable sources aren't has to do with another compound call nitrosamine, which can form when amines from protein in meat change the nitrates. Nitrosamine can be carcinogenic, but is more of a concern when the meat is cooked at high temperatures, and can be largely offset by adequate consumption of vitamin C and other antioxidants.
Here are some tips for healthier grilling!
But I Buy Nitrate-free Bacon!
Unfortunately, you probably don't. Even naturally-cured meats (those labeled as "uncured"), like ours, are technically still cured, just with natural alternatives to sodium nitrite—typically celery juice or seed powder. These natural substances work for curing because they contain high levels of nitrites and nitrates!
While we're still inclined to choose cured meats with natural ingredients, it's important to realize that the actual curing agent in celery juice powder is chemically identical to what is used in traditionally-cured meats.
However, most naturally-cured meats are more likely to come from high quality sources and have fewer other low-quality ingredients, so can still come out on top in terms of health benefits.
What do you think? Do you eat cured meats? Did this change your mind? If so, head over to our shop and check out our selection of naturally-cured meats!