Label Decoder: Sodium Nitrite

by in Food Safety, March 27, 2009

If you think hot dogs, bacon and lunch meats keep that pinkish hue naturally, think again! These are just a few of the foods that contain the preservative sodium nitrite, which may be harmful to your health.

What is it?
“Sodium nitrite” and “sodium nitrate” (you might see either on a food label) are used as preservatives to keep meat that bright red color and help prevent bacterial growth.

Where is it?
Sodium nitrite is commonly added to cured meats, bacon, sausage, ham and smoked fish. The FDA has established guidelines to limit the amount of nitrites that can be used in foods. Many food companies are using less and less of these additives because of their potential dangers.

What is the problem?
Nitrites in food can lead to the formation of chemicals called nitrosamines, which may cause cancer. Studies have linked eating cured meats that contain nitrites to various types of cancer in children, pregnant women and adults. Although studies have yet to prove that eating nitrites in bacon, sausage and ham causes cancer in humans, the Center for Science in the Public Interest urges pregnant women to avoid these foods.

The addition of ascorbic acid (a.k.a. vitamin C), erythorbic acids or alpha-tocopherol (a.k.a. vitamin E) can help prevent the formation of nitrosamine. You might see these things added to nitrite-containing products (read the ingredients label). This has dramatically decreased nitrosamines in foods, which is a good thing!

How do you avoid it?
Check labels on meat and fish products and choose products that are free of nitrates and nitrites. Applegate Farms is one company that has many products — including lunch meats — that are labeled “no nitrates” or “no nitrites added.”

One thing to remember is there’s a difference between the nitrites added to meats and the ones naturally existing in fruits and vegetables. Check out this LA Times article to learn more.

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