The truth about nitrites and “uncured” meat products

Piggery Uncured Bologna

The Piggery’s uncured bologna is delicious, but it’s not nitrite free

Go to your local Whole Foods or other source of virtuous and carefully vetted nutrition, proceed to the deli or meat section, and you’re likely to find a label that says something like

Except those naturally occurring in celery powder

Would it bother you to know that a/these products ARE cured and b/they DO contain nitrites, possibly in the same quantities as traditional “cured” meats? Then you’ll want to stick around for a somewhat circuitous history lesson.

The “uncured” label was introduced by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1979. (The USDA regulates meat and dairy products; the Food and Drug Administration regulates most other processed foods.) I haven’t been able to find the inspiration for this new designation, but my guess is it was requested by the meat processing industry in response to the nitrosamide scare.

During the early 1970s, scientists discovered that the nitrate used to cure bacon could turn into a highly toxic and carcinogenic substance if the bacon was overcooked. Processing rules were changed so mass produced “pumped” bacon had to be injected with ascorbic acid, which neutralized the nitrosamides. Problem solved. But consumers had been freaked, and it would have been very beneficial to meat processors to be able to market their product as “uncured”.

According to Section 319.2 of CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) which defines the “uncured” designation, “any product, such as frankfurters and corned beef, for which there is a standard in this part and to which nitrate or nitrite is permitted or required to be added, may be prepared without nitrate or nitrite and labeled with such standard name when immediately preceded with the term “Uncured” in the same size and style of lettering as the rest of such standard name: Provided, That the product is found by the Administrator to be similar in size, flavor, consistency, and general appearance to such product as commonly prepared with nitrate and nitrite.”

“Natural and Organic Cured Meat Products: Regulatory, Manufacturing, Marketing, Quality and Safety Issues” a white paper published by the American Meat Science Association in 2007, points out that this definition is an oxymoron. (Access to this document requires registration on the AMSA site, which I believe is provided free of charge.) Unlike other meats, bacon, ham, sausage and similar products are substantially changed in the curing process and that change is produced through fermentation as lactobacilli transform nitrate into nitrite. Without nitrate/nitrite the meat cannot be cured and will not have the characteristics of cured meat.

In order to create cured meat that could be labeled uncured, producers would have to find another curing agent that would not be identified as nitrate or nitrite. And that’s exactly what they did. The AMSA described a study of 56 “uncured” products purchased at retail that found “38 products included sea salt, 33 listed evaporated cane juice, raw sugar or turbinado sugar, 19 included a lactic acid starter culture, 17 had natural spices or natural flavorings, 14 added honey and 11 included celery juice or celery juice concentrate.” 16 also contained lactate, which we’ll talk about later.

Another study reported by the AMSA analyzed “4 selected commercial brands each of natural or organic bacon, hams and frankfurters [and] showed that all samples except one sample of bacon contained residual nitrite at concentrations ranging from 0.9 ppm to 9.2 ppm. Residual nitrate was found in all products at concentrations of 6.8 ppm to 44.4 ppm” although these proportions were in most cases lower than the amounts found in “cured” products.

I first encountered “uncured” meats when writing a website for Niman Ranch about 2008. Their uncured bacon and ham were the only products from this high-end butcher that were allowed into Whole Foods, since the rest contained nitrites. I recall that the bacon, while it had a nice smokey taste, would not crisp up in cooking and the ham did not have the salty muskiness you associate with cured ham.

If you pick up a package of “uncured” sausage, bacon or ham in 2015, however, you’ll probably find that the appearance, taste and cooking properties are very similar to “cured”. That’s because the meat processors have figured it out. They use celery powder. According to the AMSA paper, “celery juice and celery powder appear to be highly compatible with processed meat products because celery has very little vegetable pigment (as opposed to beets, for example) and a mild flavor profile similar to raw celery that does not detract greatly from finished product flavor.” Celery powder also has a high initial nitrate concentration at 27,462 ppm.

Another benefit of curing with celery powder, for the meat processor, is that it fits under the separate “natural” designation which, according to the USDA Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book of 2005, means the processed meat product “…does not contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, or chemical preservative (as defined in 21 CFR 101.22), or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed.” Nitrates and nitrites are clearly excluded, but not celery powder and other vegetable cures because they are defined as “flavorings”.

Sodium lactate and potassium lactate, which can aid in curing, were originally permitted under the “natural” label but were disallowed in 2006 after a petition claiming that even though they have a natural source their purpose is create a chemical reaction in the foods. Of course, the same could be said of celery powder and other “natural” cures.

The party bringing the petition to restrict the “natural” definition was not Aunt Sally’s Farm Raised Happy Meats, but the giant Hormel meat processing concern. This tells you something about the politics of these food designations which, in the interest of promoting healthy eating (and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that) also create enormous profit opportunities in marketing to the growing audience of consumers who are willing to pay premium prices for the product.

So enjoy your “uncured” and “natural” bacon, salami or ham because it’s probably delicious. Just don’t think you’re eating an uncured or nitrite-free product.

Coming up: Why Nitrites Are So Bad for You. (Or Are They?)

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