Top bacon strip has no nitrates, bottom has nitrates. Which is healthier? (Answer below)
A while back we examined “uncured” meat products and how they actually are cured, just with different methods than the traditional curing salts. We also talked about how those products can contain just as many nitrites as a package of Oscar Meyer bacon, yet can be labeled “no nitrates or nitrites added” because their nitrites come from celery powder, which the FDA classifies as a flavoring agent rather than a cure. But we stopped before defining why it’s so important to avoid nitrites (and nitrates, which turn into nitrites through fermentation) in the first place.
Well, maybe it’s not that important. Maybe nitrites are not that bad. After all, they’re derived from nitrogen which is one of the common elements in nature and fundamental to plant growth. The Piggery has a great bar chart on this blog post, showing that leafy greens like kale contain far more nitrites than cured meats.
Last time we talked about a nitrite byproduct called nitrosamide, which indeed has been shown to be carcinogenic. It used to be found in burnt bacon, then the bacon industry changed its curing method so the nitrites are reduced before the bacon cooks and nitrosamides have less opportunity to form. Nitrosamides are also found naturally in our stomachs (as a byproduct of digesting nitrites) and in beer. So if you’re worried about getting sick from food you can probably find better things to worry about—like getting botulism from uncured meat.
In a way this issue can be seen as an instance of no harm, no foul. Concerned consumers think they’re buying food without nitrites, which they aren’t. But they think nitrites are bad for them, which they aren’t. However, deceptive marketing practices make you wonder what else the marketers being disingenuous about.
I’m specifically thinking of this FAQ on the Applegate website, to which I’ll add some italics for emphasis:
In the early 1900’s, scientists discovered how to make sodium nitrite synthetically. Since this factory process was easily standardized, synthetic nitrite became popular. Today, these industrial chemicals are also used in products like fertilizer, pyrotechnics and rocket propellant, and can contain heavy metals, arsenic and lead.
But not to worry! Applegate products never contain synthetic sodium nitrite. We cure meat using nitrates found in nature – in celery, specifically. When mixed with a culture starter, the natural nitrates in celery juice turn to nitrites and achieve the desirable results (better flavor and appearance) without the factory side effects.
See what they did there? They don’t claim that “synthetic sodium nitrate” is different from “natural nitrate”. They can’t, because it’s chemically identical. But they build a case for guilt by association. Synthetic sodium nitrate (whatever that is) is used in making fertilizer and rocket fuel (!) which can contain bad stuff like heavy metals or even arsenic (!!). Ipso facto, nitrates not from a natural source may also contain those poisons, and it’s better to avoid the “factory side effects”. What factory side effects? See what they did there?
Maybe Applegate Farms just hired an overeager copywriter—because according to this New York Times article they’ve also been active in lobbying the U.S.D.A. for more accurate labeling standards. But don’t hold your breath. The Times article was written in 2011, and nothing has changed.
Answer: neither. But this zero-nitrites paleo bacon is pretty good.
Meanwhile, I found one bacon that’s completely free of nitrates, natural or synthetic. The cure is based on plain old sodium chloride, AKA table salt. It’s also got lots of saturated fat, so don’t think of it as healthy. (The package helpfully tells us it’s “not a low calorie food”.) But it ain’t bad.