The Truth About Nitrates

Recently there has been a trend in the labeling of processed meats in Canada that implies some of these products are nitrite and/or nitrate free when nothing could be further from the truth.

If you read these labels carefully, you will see that these products contain an ingredient called “cultured celery extract”.  Cultured celery extract is a natural source of nitrites and meat products that contain this substance have as much - and in some cases more - nitrites than the processed meats that list sodium nitrite on their labels.

Nitrates are naturally occurring substances that can be found in many vegetables, not just celery.  Other vegetables that contain high concentrations of nitrates include beets, endive, lettuce, parsley, radishes, rhubarb, spinach and turnip greens.  When nitrates are broken down by so-called good bacteria, they become nitrites.   This occurs when meat starts to age.  It also occurs when we eat anything that contains a nitrate whether it be a hot dog or a salad.  The good bacteria in our saliva converts those nitrates into nitrites as a natural part of the digestive process.

Nitrites do many positive things.  They prevent the growth of bad bacteria, such a C. botulinus, which can have significant negative impacts on human health.  They also give meat a healthy pink color and are the source of that distinctive deli-meat flavor.  

Nitrites have also been implicated in colorectal and other cancers, which is why consumers are so willing to pay a king’s ransom for any product that implies it’s nitrite-free.   There is considerable debate on how much of an impact the nitrites in processed meats have on cancer rates since in addition to processed meats and vegetables, nitrosamines (the carcinogenic compound produced from nitrates) can also be found in tobacco smoke, and some cosmetics and drugs.  

What is known is that nitrosamines can be neutralized by ascorbic acid, so a diet rich in vitamin C will have a greater impact on overall health than purchasing processed meats with labels designed to give you the impression that you’re not eating something you really are.