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Understanding Meat: Nitrates

Understanding Meat: Nitrates

Falling in line with our efforts to raise the best quality grass-fed meats in a sustainable and responsible way, we feel it's important to educate our community on what exactly is in their meat products.
Understanding Meat:  Nitrates

Curing meat has been a staple food handling technique throughout human history.  The practice of using salt to extend the life of meat allowed people to safely consume the calorie and nutrient dense food on a regular basis,  allowing our brains to develop into the power processors that have catapulted us to the top of the food chain.  It has also given us bacon.

Once thought to be the only player in the preservation process, certain salts sourced from seawater or mines were not acting alone.  These salts contained impurities such as saltpeter, or Potassium Nitrate.  These impurities were the hidden factors to extending shelf-life of meat while maintaining the deep color and developing the savory flavor that is associated with cured meats.

It wasn’t until the 1920’s that Nitrates studies revealed that the direct addition of nitrites were advantageous to the curing process, preserving color and guarding against harmful bacteria.  In 1925, the USDA began to allow the commercial meat industry to preserve their meats in this manner and established it as the common practice until recently, when the full extent of the effects of nitrates in humans were investigated.

To understand the effects of nitrates on humans, their presence and function needs to be addressed.  

Nitrates (NO3) is a naturally occurring compound in many foods we eat.  Studies show that around 80% of human intake of nitrates come from vegetables like spinach, beets, celery and fennel seeds.  The remaining comes from water and meat consumption.  In order for nitrates to preserve meat, they must be converted to nitrites (NO2) by bacteria called Staphylococcus carnosus.  This bacteria is found in human saliva and stomach acids as well as in meat pigments.  The presence of nitric oxide resulting from the conversion of nitrates to nitrites creates an inhabitable environment for harmful bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum, the cause of botulism.

Preserving appearance — without nitrite, bacon and other cured meats would be grey — and preventing against botulism are only primary benefits of nitrites.  Preliminary studies have shown that the presence of nitric oxide also benefits cardiovascular performance by keeping blood vessels dilated thus helping to mitigate high blood pressure.  With these known benefits, why has nitrate and nitrite additives in cured meats become a major concern for health-conscious consumers?

In the post-war era of convenience and consumption, meat producers needed a way to keep up with demand for shelf stable meat without having to wait for the natural conversion of nitrates to nitrites through bacterial metabolization.  To achieve this, they isolated the nitrite compound and added it directly into the product.  This inorganic nitrite is missing a vital substance, making them more harmful than good.

Vegetables that have naturally occurring nitrates also contain ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C.  Vitamin C blocks the formation of nitrosamines, which are known to be one of the most potent carcinogens in existence.  Because meat does not contain Vitamin C and the added inorganic nitrites also lack vitamin C, they are unable to prevent the development of these hazardous carcinogens that have been associated with cured meats.

But if you love bacon and salami and don’t want a potential higher risk of cancer, what can you do?

Look for products labeled as “uncured” and “no added nitrates,” a USDA requirement for cured meat products that use natural sources of nitrites, like celery juice and powder, rather conventional inorganic sources. 

Uncured and conventional products also differ in the amount of nitrates and nitrites that are used.  Conventional products have been found to use the maximum amount of inorganic nitrites allowed to ensure that their products will last, well, almost forever.  Uncured products using celery powder, such as our Buy Ranch Direct bacon and salami, use the lowest concentration of nitrates necessary to achieve the desired end-product.

While nitrate and nitrite studies are still in their infancy, researchers have not been able to identify the direct link between processed meat consumption and cancer.  Even so, we pride ourselves in offering our customers the safest possible product that also happens to be delicious.  After all, we love our bacon too. 

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