If you’re a fan of pork, you may have heard some buzz about nitrates and nitrites in cured meats.
These compounds are often used to preserve and enhance the color of processed meats like ham, bacon, and hot dogs.
But what exactly are nitrates and nitrites, and are they harmful to your health?
In this article, we’ll explore the science behind these compounds and take a closer look at their presence in pork products.
So sit back, relax, and get ready to learn all about nitrates in pork!
Does Pork Have Nitrates?
Yes, pork can contain nitrates and nitrites. These compounds are commonly used in the curing process of pork products like ham, bacon, and deli meats.
Nitrates and nitrites are forms of salt that have been used for centuries to preserve meat before the invention of refrigeration. Today, they are still used to extend the shelf life of processed meats and improve their color.
While nitrates and nitrites are generally recognized as safe by regulatory agencies like the USDA, there is some concern about their potential health effects.
Studies have linked high consumption of processed meats containing nitrates and nitrites to an increased risk of certain cancers, such as colon cancer. However, it’s important to note that these studies have not definitively proven a causal relationship.
What Are Nitrates And Nitrites?
Nitrates and nitrites are chemical compounds that contain nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrites contain one nitrogen and two oxygen atoms (NO2), while nitrates have one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms (NO3). They can be found naturally in the human body and some vegetables, but they are also added to processed foods like bacon to preserve them and make them last longer.
There are two types of nitrates and nitrites: inorganic and organic. Inorganic nitrates and nitrites are water-soluble and commonly exist as salts of nitric acid and nitrous acid, respectively. They are often bound to a metal cation like Na+ or K+ and occur naturally through the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen as part of the environmental nitrogen cycle.
Organic nitrates and nitrites, on the other hand, are mostly synthesized medicinal products. They are generally more complex and lipophilic than inorganic nitrates and nitrites.
While nitrates and nitrites have been associated with potential health risks like cancer, they may also have some health benefits. For example, the high natural nitrate content of beetroot juice has been credited with lowering blood pressure and enhancing exercise performance. Nitrates are also the active ingredient in some medications for angina, a condition in which reduced blood flow causes chest pain.
The Role Of Nitrates In Preserving Pork
Nitrates play a crucial role in the preservation of pork products like ham, bacon, and deli meats. When added to meat at the allowed levels set forth by the USDA, nitrite completely inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria like Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism.
Nitrate is inert and must be first converted by bacteria to the form nitrite before it can be helpful for meat quality and safety. Nitrite salt is responsible for very effectively improving meat quality and safety. It imparts a better flavor, taste, and aroma while preserving the red-pinkish color of the meat. Nitrate and nitrite slow almost all bacteria that cause food spoilage and sickness, which is why they are classified as preservatives by the USDA.
While nitrates and nitrites have been used for centuries to preserve meat products, recent research has demonstrated some negative effects of this technique. Certain N-nitroso compounds have been shown to stimulate gastric cancer. Therefore, there is ongoing research on the effects of nitrates and nitrites.
Despite these concerns, nitrates and nitrites remain an important tool in the preservation of pork products. They help extend shelf life, improve color and flavor, and ensure safety by preventing bacterial growth. As with any food additive, it’s important to consume processed meats containing nitrates and nitrites in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
The Potential Health Risks Of Consuming Nitrates
Consuming nitrates can have potential health risks, especially if they are converted into nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are a group of chemicals that can form when nitrates and nitrites are exposed to high heat during cooking or processing. These compounds have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, particularly colon cancer.
In addition to cancer, high levels of nitrates in the body can also cause methemoglobinemia, also known as blue baby syndrome. This occurs when nitrates turn hemoglobin, the protein in blood that carries oxygen, into methemoglobin. This can cause skin to turn bluish or grayish in color and can result in serious illness or even death.
Furthermore, maternal exposure to environmental nitrates and nitrites during pregnancy may increase the risk of pregnancy complications such as anemia, threatened abortion/premature labor, or preeclampsia.
It’s important to note that while nitrates and nitrites can be harmful in certain circumstances, they are also essential compounds that play important roles in the body. The key is to consume them in moderation and from a variety of sources, including vegetables and other whole foods.
Nitrates In Pork: How Much Is Too Much?
When it comes to nitrates in pork, it’s important to understand that not all pork products are created equal. Some processed pork products like ham, bacon, and deli meats can contain high levels of nitrates and nitrites, while fresh pork cuts like pork chops and tenderloin typically have much lower levels.
According to studies, a single 100g serving of cured ham can contain as much as 900 mcg of nitrites, making it one of the highest sources of dietary nitrates. Bacon can have up to 380 mcg of nitrites per 100g of weight, and deli meats on average have up to 500 mcg of nitrates per 100g of meat.
So how much is too much when it comes to nitrates in pork? The answer is not entirely clear. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has established an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for nitrate consumption, which equates to 235mg for a person weighing 63.5kg (140lb). However, this ADI is based on overall nitrate consumption from all sources, not just pork products.
It’s important to note that while high consumption of processed meats containing nitrates and nitrites has been linked to health risks, these risks may be mitigated by adding vitamin C to the curing process. Additionally, some experts argue that nitrates and nitrites from vegetables are actually beneficial and should be considered essential nutrients.
Ultimately, the key to consuming pork products with nitrates and nitrites is moderation. Limiting consumption of processed meats and opting for fresh pork cuts can help reduce overall intake of these compounds. Additionally, incorporating a variety of fruits and vegetables into your diet can provide beneficial nitrates and nitrites while also promoting overall health.
Alternatives To Nitrates In Pork Products
As concerns about the potential health effects of nitrates and nitrites in pork products continue to grow, researchers are exploring alternatives to these compounds. One such alternative is the use of natural substitutes, such as rosemary, green tea, and resveratrol.
Researchers at Reading University in the UK have developed processed red meat that contains added natural substitutes in a project called the Phytome Project. The substitutes aim to lower the carcinogenic compound, nitrite, used to preserve meats. The team created versions of cooked and dry-cured meat which replaced nitrite with natural alternatives. In addition, the research teams also examined whether the alternative substitutes would impact meat when used with standard nitrite levels found in processed red meats.
Celery powder is another naturally occurring nitrate source that is commonly used in natural and organic meat products. When combined with a starter culture, celery powder can be an effective substitute for nitrites. However, it’s important to note that residual nitrate levels will be higher in products containing vegetable juice powder compared to products containing sodium nitrite since vegetable juice powder has a higher level of nitrate to begin with. Additionally, residual nitrite in meat products will decrease with days of storage.
While natural substitutes like vegetable juice powder and celery powder can be effective alternatives to nitrates and nitrites, they may lead to a decrease in consumer acceptance since consumers would not expect to taste vegetable flavor in a meat product. Furthermore, alternatively-cured products are likely to have a shorter shelf life than nitrite-cured products since less nitrite is present in the final product and because other preservatives such as lactates, curing accelerators and antioxidants are not used.