Even Meat Labeled "No Nitrates or Nitrites Added" Contains Harmful Nitrites

For those trying to avoid the cancer-linked preservatives nitrates and nitrites, I have some bad news.

All processed meats -- that's bacon, deli meat, sausages, hot dogs, pepperoni, salami -- contain nitrates and nitrites, even those natural or organic products labeled as "uncured" with "no nitrates or nitrites added." Take a look at the additional (sometimes very fine) print on your favorite "uncured" meat and you will most likely find some wording similar to the following: "no nitrates or nitrites added except for those naturally occurring in ingredients such as celery juice powder, parsley, cherry powder, beet powder, spinach, sea salt etc." (emphasis mine).

The no nitrites exception is easier to find on some labels than on others.

The truth is that both conventional and natural/ organic processed meat products rely on nitrates and nitrites for enhanced taste and shelf life. The difference is the source. Conventional processed meats typically are cured with synthetic sources of nitrates and nitrites, such as sodium nitrite, while organic and natural meats typically rely on naturally-occurring sources of nitrates, such as celery or sea salt, as preservatives.

During processing, the naturally-occurring nitrates (not harmful when ingested as part of a whole food such as celery) are converted into nitrites. According to the New York Times, the naturally-derived nitrites "are virtually identical to their synthetic cousins" and pose a similar cancer risk. Yet current USDA rules require products with naturally-derived preservatives to prominently feature “Uncured” and “No nitrates or nitrites added” on the label, despite the fact that these products can contain as much or more of the potentially harmful nitrite chemicals.

Confused? That's because the USDA required labeling is confusing. Perhaps a more useful labeling system would allow organic and natural food products to be labeled as having "no synthetic nitrates or nitrites added" or "cured with only naturally-sourced nitrates and nitrites."

So where can you find a hot dog free of both synthetically- and naturally-derived nitrites? Don't bother looking. Nitrates and nitrites are what give processed meats their yummy smoky flavor and organic manufacturers that experimented with producing truly nitrite-free hot dogs found that consumers didn't like them.

What's a pepperoni pizza/ hot dog/ sausage loving family to do? 

As many health experts recommend, we choose to limit our consumption of processed meats, whether organic or not. We recognize that just because those organic hot dogs are labeled as having "no nitrates added" doesn't mean we should have them for dinner once a week. It means we use half instead of a full package of pepperoni on pizza night, offer our kids only a few slices of deli meat per week, and try to limit a dinner of Aidell's chicken sausages and whole wheat couscous (one of my "emergency meals") to just once a month.

Of course there are many good reasons to purchase natural and organic processed meats rather than conventional ones, even if both synthetic and naturally-derived nitrites are problematic. For me these reasons include the absence of synthetic hormones and antibiotics and the humane treatment of animals. And although nitrites may be nitrites when it comes to cancer and other health risks, I still prefer mine to be sourced naturally rather than produced in a factory.

How often does your family eat processed meats?

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  1. This is scary. I buy Applegate products (in spite of their high cost)regularly. There really isn't a true "safe" beef/turkey frank or deli meat. I buy organic as much as possible,at great cost,but I now have a false sense of a healthy diet. Thanks for the info...I think.

    1. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings. We still eat deli meat, sausages, hot dogs, etc., but we limit them. I don't think anyone should be eating that stuff daily. And I still think organic is better, even with the nitrates, but whether it's worth the mark up is a matter of opinion :)


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