Label Decoder: Sodium Nitrite

by in Food Safety, Label Decoder, March 27, 2009

sandwich
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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Comments (17)

  1. Krikri says:

    You made a good point – the difference between red meat and reddish meat. Preservatives help keep food longer but may have side effects. The effects can be neutralized with other chemicals as these are just a matter of compounds counteracting the other.Limiting cured meat may help but reading the label to know what additives have been used, will help the more.

  2. Rowena says:

    It is really nice that you inform us about this, I’ve been well kept-informed of these facts which is really helpful and I started being aware of the choices in food around me, thanks very much. I am looking forward for the next info’s.

  3. Krikri says:

    You made a good point – the difference between red meat and reddish meat. Preservatives help keep food longer but may have side effects. The effects can be neutralized with other chemicals as these are just a matter of compounds counteracting the other.Limiting cured meat may help but reading the label to know what additives have been used, will help the more.
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  4. kodie says:

    it is really nice to know that companys make nitrate free meats because i can not have them or very much of them because of a headache condition.

  5. Judy Johnson says:

    The Applegate brand is hard to find, however because there is an increasing demand for healthier products, I did find at my local Stop & Shop the brand “Nature’s Promise” which has a nitrate free hotdog.. I will buy them for my grandchildren, as they are huge fans of hotdogs. I will have to sneak one past my husband who will refuse to eat a “healthy” hotdog.Even though I did tell him what nitrates are (yuck!) he won’t try one (knowingly). It is hard to teach an “old dog” new tricks, but I will try.

  6. Rowe says:

    Boar’s Head makes an All Natural line that is wonderful, thank god for them. No nitrates – so good.

  7. Carol says:

    I think these healthier foods are great, but why does it COST so much MORE to NOT add something that's bad for you?

  8. Fawn says:

    ROLF, I dare you to find someone with gastric paralysis and make them eat raw fresh fruits, vegetables, etc. they’re at high risk for forming the equivalent of human hairballs. Before you make such broad statements based on your opinion (and not all raw fish is safe), please think that the statement may not apply to EVERYONE. I agree that for most people, raw can be a good option but not for everyone.

  9. RMax says:

    The Celery Powder that Applegate Farms includes in their products contains the Nitrites needed to make the "Pink" color that all cured meats have. There is realistically nothing different about the Nitrites in Celery and those used in other cured meats. Either way you cut it, Nitrites are their to help prevent bacterial growth in the meats. Like Sodium these compounds control the "water activity" levels in the meats so the bacteria cannot use it making the meats safer to eat over a longer storage life.

  10. RMax says:

    Nitrites 101
    No matter the brand, or whether it says natural or not, anything with a pink color to the meat means that a nitrite is in the product. Don't get all "gaga" over the term natural or no nitrites added. If the meat is pink it is 99.9+% sure it is in there! Don't be afraid to eat it. Much progress has been made, even in the last 20 years, that have reduced Nitrites and also reduced the much bigger concern and that Nitrosamines that develop when cured meats, like bacon, are cooked at high temperatures. So go enjoy a ham sandwich or BLT (cooked slow & low) and breathe easy. Moderation people!

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