Friday, April 2, 2010

What's in my...? Bacon: Sodium Nitrite

Wendy’s bacon, along with pretty much all bacon, unless it’s marked “nitrite free,” contains sodium nitrite, a preservative used to inhibit botulism growth, retain the meat’s red color and add some of that salty bacon goodness. All good things, no? Except for the wee little issue that it may cause cancer...

Here’s the thing: high consumption of processed meats (bacon, pepperoni, hot dogs, etc…anything that doesn’t come to you more or less straight off the animal’s body) has been linked to cancer and heart disease. Fact. WHY these products are connected to such health problems is still under debate. Maybe it’s the saturated fat, which plenty of non-processed foods contain (red meat, presumably corn-fed, was also linked to both diseases in the same study.) Or maybe it’s the consumer’s inclination to order the meat supreme over the veggie lovers pizza every time. And maybe, it’s the preservatives.

The argument that nitrites (nitrates too, but they’re not used as often) are the culprit in the case of cancer is that under high heats - such as, you know, cooking - sodium nitrite may lead to the development of carcinogenic nitrosamines. But the jury is apparently still out on whether this actually happens at dangerous levels, even though scientists have been studying the process for decades. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if that has something to do with the meat industry’s strong lobbying in favor of nitrite use. When the practice was almost banned in the 1970s, the meat industry’s response was that they would have no other means of preserving their products and cases of food poisoning would increase.

(No alternative, huh? Well there’s always safe meat production practices to prevent contamination in the first place and that real estate-hogging thingamajig in the kitchen that keeps food cold...)

Wouldn’t you know, nitrite use wasn’t banned after all. Processed meat producers were, however, required by the USDA to significantly reduce the total amount of nitrites/nitrates in their finished products and include nitrosamine inhibitors like sodium erythorbate in nitrite-cured products. But that sounds kind of like an ultra-lite “possibly” cancer-causing cigarette to me: I’m still not going to smoke it.

The Applegate Farms bacon I used in this meal includes organic celery juice, which contains naturally occurring nitrites also found in root vegetables and leafy greens. “Nitrites in nature!,” you say, “why then, they must all be good for us! Bacon explosion is the new Lipitor, hurrah!” And while some have made this claim, researchers note that not all nitrites are created equal and those from vegetable sources are less likely to produce nitrosamines due to their vitamin C levels. And although the USDA’s requirement to include nitrosamine inhibitors in processed meats is similar to this natural defense, personally, I’m going to stick with nature’s version as the safest bet. Unless, of course, I’m out drinking and there’s a Gray’s Papaya involved...but that is another post.

While we're on the topic, though, I can't help but share this amazing YouTube video, "Bacon is Good for Me: The Remix." Enjoy.


  1. "...a preservative used to inhibit botulism growth, retain the meat’s red color and add some of that salty bacon goodness. All good things, no?"

    No. Why would you want to eat meat that's only retained its red colour because of a preservative? If you eat good-quality meat and buy from a proper butcher, its colour should be one of the things that you judge its freshness by.

  2. Rosie, that's a great point. It might seem like a good idea on the surface, but when you think about it, it's actually kind of gross!