Label Decoder: Sodium Nitrite

by in Food Safety, Label Decoder, 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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Comments (18)

  1. Dotcalm says:

    Oscar Mayer has recently come out with a no nitrates/nitrites all beef hot dog, as well as one with chicken, etc. I eat them without getting a rash which is why I quit hot dogs years ago. Thank you, Oscar Mayer! It's carried by my local grocery — not specialty store.

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  5. Probably because they may not have as long a shelf life (all these additives are often just to keep foods preserved longer). These other foods that avoid relying additives also probably incorporate higher-quality ingredients, which might make them cost more in the end. Or the manufacturer may see these products as a premium compared to their regular line and use that to justify a higher sticker price. However, fresh, healthy foods like fruits and veggies are additive free and certainly not expensive. What drives up costs is the packaging (and all the marketing).

  6. Flavoade says:

    Government subsidies, one would think. Aren't you loving it?

  7. ROLF says:

    It might be nitrate-free,but it is probably high msg(disguised under other names eg 'flavour','natural flavour',etc.
    And high in salt etc.
    You can't find healthy cooked food.
    Only raw fresh fruits,vegetables and fish etc are safe.

  8. RMax says:

    If there is MSG in a product it MUST be labeled as such. Please get your facts straight. I commend those that can stick to a more raw diet but I LOVE meat in many forms (steak, roasts, sausage, ham,….etc.). To each his own. There are naturally occurring compounds in many vegetables. Like beets, eggplant, lettuce, radish, spinach, and collard and turnip greens, celery contains nitrates that convert naturally into nitrites in your stomach and then react with the amino acids in proteins to form nitrosamines. That is why the new "natural" curing agent is tied to celery. Fish are not necessarily safe either. Mercury levels and other toxins we as humans contribute to create issues there too. Information is the key. Good information! It can easily get confusing. As I said before: To each his own. We all must decide what is best for us, as individuals, to live the life we want to live. Share your view respectably and let others make up their own mind. Live and let live.

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