Sodium Nitrate: Is This Controversial Sandwich Stuffer Ingredient Dangerous?

Learn more about sodium nitrite, a controversial ingredient in cured meats like bologna, bacon and ham.

As people become more aware of what they're putting into their bodies, long-standing practices of the food industry have come under fire. Even some traditional foods have become controversial.

Cured meats like bologna, salami, bacon, pepperoni and ham have been a part of the American lunch for over a century.

Sodium nitrite is an ingredient commonly used as a preservative and a color enhancer in cured meats, but its inclusion in those meats has become a major concern for many consumers. STACK talked to Leslie Bonci, registered dietician and nutrition consultant to pro teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, about whether sodium nitrite is worth the worry.

The terms "nitrates" and "nitrites" can be a bit confusing. There's nitrogen in the soil, which you already know if you learned about the nitrogen cycle in science class. It's confusing, but essentially most of that nitrogen comes from animal waste products and lightning oxidizing atmospheric nitrogen. The nitrogen in the soil gets absorbed by plants and is stored as nitrates. Once you eat those plants, your body turns their nitrates into nitrites.

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Sodium nitrite is the controversial ingredient in many foods. "Nitrites (particularly sodium nitrite) are added to meats to provide color, flavor and also prevent bacterial growth by acting as preservative. In particular, nitrites prevent the growth of the harmful bacteria clostridium botulinum," says Bonci. Those all sound like important things, and sodium nitrite has been used in cured meats since the 1920s, so what's the big concern? "Nitrite may react with dietary amines (such as protein) to form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines have been found to be cancer-causing in animals," Bonci says.

But don't ditch your favorite lunch meats just yet. According to Bonci, a popular vitamin prevents the conversion of nitrites into nitrosamines. She says, "Many cured meats with sodium nitrite also have vitamin C added to them, which prevents the formation of nitrosamines." Furthermore, nearly 93 percent of the nitrite we consume comes from vegetables.

The nitrate content of these vegetables is turned into nitrite once we eat it. Many popular vegetables have a nitrate content over 1,500 parts per million. The USDA allows cured meats to contain nitrite at only 156 parts per million, which is typically reduced to 10 parts per million after processing. According to the American Meat Institute, that amount is approximately one-fifth the level that cured meats contained 25 years ago.

Removing sodium nitrate from meats is not a viable option, since it's a crucial part of meat's flavor, look and shelf life. The AMI website says, "cured meats by their definition must include sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite is the very ingredient that gives a product like ham its color and taste. Its shelf life also would be shortened substantially [without sodium nitrite]." Several studies have concluded that the level of sodium nitrite in cured meats is not a risk.

The National Toxicology Program conducted a multi-year study in 2000, concluding that nitrate was safe at the levels used. A study conducted by the University of Minnesota stated that "nitrite as used in meat and meat products is considered safe because known benefits outweigh potential risks."

Bonci thinks that people should be more worried about cured meats' nutrition facts than their sodium nitrite content. She says, "Research has not been clear about the impact of nitrosamines on increasing cancer in humans, but lunch meats like bologna, salami and bacon are not the most healthful meat choices and can be high in sodium and fat." She recommends roasted turkey breast, roasted chicken and roast beef instead 0f common cured meat options.

Bonci also says the dietary nitrite from fruits and veggies could be of special benefit to athletes, because they have been shown to decrease the oxygen cost of exercise. She recommends carrots, lettuce, spinach, cabbage and beets for providing useful dietary nitrate.

Regarding sodium nitrite, here's the bottom line: You should be more concerned about the nutrition profile of the food than the potential danger from the ingredient—at least until more conclusive evidence is available.

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