You Can’t See Me! The last two months have been lively here at Circle B
Nitrites VS Nitrates
As you already know, Circle B Ranch believes in consumer awareness when it comes to food. We are completely open to questions about our products. We will discuss our opinions with you in detail. We do not skip over the more controversial aspects of pork production. Because we consider our customers and try to anticipate your needs, we decided to address perhaps one of the most controversial subjects, when it comes to pork products: whether or not nitrates and/or nitrites should be added?
For some time now, cured pork products, especially bacon, have gotten a really bad reputation because of the use of nitrites and nitrates. These additives are now monsters to be avoided. Shelves are full of “Nitrate-free” products, and they have begun popping up in freezers. Why has this happened? Over the past few years, multiple articles have been written about how nitrates can cause cancer when they are present in extremely high concentrations. I admit, this information is enough to scare anyone; people tend to focus on only two words in this sentence—nitrates and cancer. But, I would like to call attention to two different words from this sentence: high concentrations. By discussing these two words, perhaps I can help you gain a better understanding of what nitrates and nitrites really are and how they are truly used.
First, you must understand the difference between the nitrate and the nitrite. Scientifically, both are similar in composition, containing amounts of oxygen and nitrogen. The only difference between the two is that a nitrate has more oxygen than a nitrite (Gunnars). While this may not mean much to us people who are not scientifically inclined, it is the basic difference. While both are found in our foods, nitrates become nitrites due to natural bacteria found in the mouth. As we chew our meal, we are actually converting nitrates into nitrites. As our bodies process these nitrites, two things can happen. They can either turn into Nitric oxide which is good for lowering blood pressure, or they can turn into nitrosamines which are bad for us since they are cancer-causing agents (Gunnars). In other words, nitrates turn into nitrites, and nitrites are the foundation of the argument.
And here is where the real discussion begins. Many people tend to believe that high concentrations of nitrites (and therefore nitrates) cause cancer. Once again, let me point out the key words—high concentrations. That’s why legal limits are set on their concentration levels in food and drinking water. A 2009 article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition goes over the limits set by the government: The Acceptable Daily Intake of sodium nitrate for a human being is 222 mg for a 60kg (132 pounds) adult (Katan). This amount, set in 1962 by the World Health Organization, still stands today. As for nitrites, the acceptable limit is .33 mg per kilogram of body weight (CDC). Using the same math, a 60 kg or 132-pound person can consume 19.8 mg of nitrite per day and be safe. In other words, according to USDA standards, it is perfectly safe to eat nitrates and nitrites if you do not consume them in large amounts.
So how does this fact connect to the process of curing bacon? Nitrite is the most frequently used additive. Sodium nitrite, which is on the USDA’s list of approved food additives, is used—alone or along with sodium nitrate—to fix the color in cured meat and to help prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, bacteria that can cause botulism in humans (USDA, “Additives in Meat and Poultry Products”). Prevention of this bacteria is extremely important because botulism can be life-threatening. As well, nitrites help develop the cured-meat flavor we all enjoy in our bacon.
High concentrations of these additives are not necessary to achieve the desired results. There are USDA approved recipes for curing bacon, and the USDA does set the limits for the amount of nitrites used during the curing process; the agency is responsible for observing the amount used by meat processors and enforcing the set limits (“Additives in Meat and Poultry Products”). As well, the USDA suggests that vitamins C and E be added to hold back the formation of those scary nitrosamines (the cancer causing agents I mentioned earlier) (“Bacon and Food Safety”). So, the USDA is working on their end to restrict the amounts of nitrates and nitrates you consume.
But the responsibility does not stop there. Next in line, food producers, like Circle B Ranch, also have the obligation of making sure your intake of nitrates and nitrites is limited. We have to follow USDA approved guidelines and recipes, and we have to stay on top of any changes. Because the FDA and FSIS constantly review the safety of any food additives (based on current scientific knowledge), they reserve the right to modify or withdraw approval of an additive (USDA, “Additives in Meat and Poultry Products”). In other words, additives never have permanent approval, and it is our responsibility to stay up to date with the current guidelines. All of Circle B’s recipes are approved by the USDA. While our meat processor does use nitrates in our curing process, our pork products do not contain high concentrations of nitrates or nitrites.
Lastly, you, as the consumer have the final say in your nitrate/nitrite consumption. Read product labels, be aware of ingredients. There are “nitrate-free” products out there, as I mentioned earlier, but are they all as healthy as they seem? Many of these products include ingredients that have higher levels of naturally occurring nitrates, such as beet juice and celery juice or celery powder. Celery juice is often added to hot dogs to take the place of sodium nitrate during the curing process, but food producers are able to call their products “nitrate-free” because they did not directly add the sodium nitrate (Alfaro). Interesting, isn’t it?
Label checking is not the only way to reduce nitrate intake. The best way to eliminate the negative nitrite and those nasty nitrosamines is actually connected to preparing our meal. Cooking has a lot to do with the amount of nitrites we ingest. For instance, let us take a look at bacon and how it is cooked. Bacon can be fried, oven-baked, and even microwaved. Studies have shown that bacon cooked for longer periods of time at lower levels of heat does not show evidence of containing nitrosamines but bacon prepared at higher levels of heat does. Bacon cooked at 275° for 30 minutes (medium-well) has no nitrosamines, while bacon fried at 400° for 4-10 minutes (medium to burned) has some nitrosamines (USDA, “Bacon and Food Safety”). Numerous articles agree that microwaving is the best way to prepare your bacon as microwaved bacon will contain less nitrosamines than fried bacon.
Here at Circle B Ranch we do our best to help you limit your intake of nitrates, nitrites, and nitrosamines. We offer NF (nitrate-free, uncured) bacon; its ingredients are clearly listed with our product: Water, sea salt, Organic evaporated cane juice, Organic brown sugar, Organic cinnamon, Organic cloves. There are no added inorganic ingredients, and there are no added natural nitrates such as celery juice. Our uncured bacon is cut and frozen immediately to preserve freshness and reduce rancidity, and it is packaged in cryovac to extend its freezer life.
We offer both fully cured and nitrate-free bacon because we want to give our customers a choice. While we use nitrates in our products because they are necessary for preservation, we also believe they should be eaten responsibly, in moderation. And although we want to cater to the needs of the consumer, we also want you to be aware of what you are eating.
Here are a few of the articles I went over while researching this subject (because I wanted to give you the best information possible); you can examine them to get more information:
Alfaro, Danilo. “Facts About Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite.”
CDC. “Nitrate/Nitrite Toxicity: What are U.S. Standards and Regulations for Nitrates & Nitrites Exposure?”
Gunnars, Kris. “Are Nitrates and Nitrites in Foods Harmful?”
Katan, Martjin B. “Nitrate in foods: harmful or healthy?”
USDA. “Bacon and Food Safety.”