Bacon is a beloved breakfast staple for many people, but have you ever wondered why it has nitrates in it?
Nitrates and nitrites are often added to processed meats like bacon, ham, and hot dogs to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, add flavor, and improve the appearance of the meat. However, there are concerns about the potential health risks associated with consuming too many nitrates.
In this article, we’ll explore the science behind nitrates in bacon and whether they’re really as bad as some people make them out to be. So grab a cup of coffee and let’s dive in!
Why Are Nitrates In Bacon?
Nitrates and nitrites are added to bacon for a few reasons. First and foremost, they act as a preservative to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli. This is especially important in processed meats like bacon, which are more susceptible to bacterial growth due to their high moisture content.
In addition to their preservative properties, nitrates and nitrites also add a salty flavor and improve the appearance of the meat by giving it a pink or red color. This is why bacon has that iconic pink hue that we all know and love.
However, there are concerns about the potential health risks associated with consuming too many nitrates. Some studies suggest that a high intake of processed meats like bacon may increase the risk for cancer in the digestive tract. While nitrates and nitrites are not the sole cause of this increased risk, they may play a role.
It’s important to note that nitrates and nitrites also occur naturally in vegetables, which may actually reduce the risk for some types of cancer and other diseases. In fact, people obtain around 80% of their dietary nitrates from vegetables.
What Are Nitrates And Nitrites?
Nitrates and nitrites are chemical compounds that contain nitrogen and oxygen. They can be found naturally in the human body and some foods, particularly vegetables. However, manufacturers also add them to processed foods like bacon to preserve them and make them last longer.
Nitrates and nitrites can be categorized into inorganic and organic forms based on their chemical structure. 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 such as Na+ or K+ and occur naturally through the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen as part of the environmental nitrogen cycle.
Both nitrites and nitrates contain nitrogen and oxygen, but their difference comes in the number of oxygen atoms they carry. Nitrite’s chemical makeup has one nitrogen and two oxygen atoms (NO2), whereas nitrates contain one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms (NO3).
While nitrates and nitrites have been associated with potential health risks like cancer, they may also have health benefits. For example, high natural nitrate content in 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.
It’s important to understand that the chemical form of nitrates and nitrites affects their properties and subsequent biological effects in humans. Inorganic nitrates and nitrites are generally more water-soluble than organic nitrates and nitrites, which are mostly synthesized medicinal products.
The History Of Nitrates In Bacon
The use of nitrates in bacon can be traced back to the Middle Ages when salt contaminated with potassium or sodium nitrate, also known as saltpeter, was used to preserve meat. It was discovered that salt not only extended the shelf life of meat by preventing rancidity but also controlled the growth of bacteria. As time went on, it was discovered that it was not the salt but the nitrites in the salt that preserved these meat products.
In 1925, nitrites and nitrates were added to cured meat products to produce a pink color and distinct cured meat flavor that lasts. Nitrites also prevent meat from going rancid and protect its flavor. Most importantly, nitrites act as a form of food safety by protecting meat from bacteria that cause disease and spoilage. The use of nitrites in cured meats completely inhibits the growth of Clostridium botulinum (commonly known as botulism) and almost completely inhibits Clostridium perfringens (bacteria known as the third most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S.). Nitrites also slow down the growth of other bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes (bacteria known as the leading cause of death among foodborne bacterial pathogens).
In 1977, the FDA and US Department of Agriculture gave the meat industry three months to prove that nitrate and nitrite in bacon caused no harm. The meat industry could not prove that nitrosamines were not carcinogenic because it was already known that they were. Instead, the argument was made that nitrates and nitrites were essential for making bacon because without them, bacon would cause thousands of deaths from botulism. In 1978, Richard Lyng, director of the AMI, argued that nitrites are to processed meat “as yeast is to bread.” Despite concerns about potential health risks associated with consuming too many nitrates, they continue to be used in bacon and other processed meats today.
The Benefits Of Adding Nitrates To Bacon
Despite the potential health risks associated with consuming too many nitrates, there are some benefits to adding them to bacon. Nitrates and nitrites help to preserve the meat and prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, which is especially important in processed meats like bacon. This means that adding nitrates can actually make bacon safer to eat.
In addition to their preservative properties, nitrates and nitrites also give bacon its characteristic pink color and salty flavor. This not only makes bacon more visually appealing but also enhances its taste. Without nitrates, bacon would have a dull gray color and a less appealing taste.
Moreover, the use of nitrates in bacon production has been a traditional practice for centuries. It has been used to cure meats and preserve them for long periods of time, ensuring that they remain safe to eat even in times of scarcity.
However, it’s important to consume bacon in moderation and be mindful of the potential health risks associated with high levels of nitrates. While the benefits of adding nitrates to bacon cannot be denied, it’s important to balance these benefits with the potential risks and make informed choices about our diets.
The Potential Health Risks Of Nitrates In Bacon
While nitrates and nitrites are used in bacon to improve its taste and appearance, they can also pose potential health risks if consumed in excess. When bacon is cooked at high temperatures, the combination of nitrates and amino acids can create carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines. These compounds have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, particularly in the digestive tract.
Additionally, processed meats like bacon that contain added nitrates have been associated with other health issues such as methemoglobinemia in infants (also known as blue baby syndrome) and complications during pregnancy. It’s worth noting that not all forms of nitrates are harmful, but added nitrates are the ones that have been linked to these health risks.
It’s important to limit your intake of processed meats like bacon and focus on eating natural, minimally processed sources of meat instead. If you do choose to eat bacon, consider opting for nitrate-free options or cooking it at lower temperatures to reduce the formation of nitrosamines. Ultimately, moderation is key when it comes to consuming nitrates in bacon and other processed meats.
How To Reduce Your Intake Of Nitrates In Bacon
If you’re concerned about the potential health risks associated with consuming nitrates in bacon, there are a few things you can do to reduce your intake:
1. Look for nitrate-free or low-nitrate bacon: Some brands offer bacon that is labeled as nitrate-free or low-nitrate. These products may use alternative preservatives or methods of curing that don’t involve nitrates.
2. Check the ingredient list: Even if a product is labeled as nitrate-free, it’s important to check the ingredient list for any other additives that may contain nitrates. Look for ingredients like celery salt, which is a natural source of nitrates.
3. Buy from local or organic sources: Local or organic bacon may be less likely to contain high levels of nitrates, as these products may use different methods of production.
4. Cook bacon at a lower temperature: Cooking bacon at a lower temperature for a longer period of time can help to reduce the formation of harmful compounds like nitrosamines.
5. Limit your overall intake of processed meats: While bacon can be a delicious addition to your diet, it’s important to consume it in moderation and balance it with other healthy foods like vegetables and whole grains.
By following these tips, you can help to reduce your intake of nitrates in bacon and make healthier choices for your diet.
Conclusion: Should You Be Worried About Nitrates In Bacon?
So, should you be worried about nitrates in bacon? The answer is not a straightforward yes or no. While some studies suggest that a high intake of processed meats like bacon may increase the risk for cancer, it’s important to keep in mind that nitrates and nitrites also occur naturally in vegetables, which may actually have health benefits.
Additionally, manufacturers are required by law to limit the amount of nitrites they use in processed meats like bacon, and many now add vitamin C or other compounds to inhibit the formation of potentially harmful nitrosamines.
If you’re concerned about the potential health risks associated with nitrates and nitrites in bacon, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure. Look for bacon that is labeled as nitrate-free or low in nitrates, and check the ingredients list for sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, potassium nitrate, or potassium nitrite.
You can also try buying from local sources or farmers markets, or choosing bacon from pasture-raised pigs. And when cooking bacon, try to avoid burning it and cook it at a lower heat for longer periods of time.