Updated 19 October 2015

How dangerous are the nitrites in bacon?

Having enough to eat doesn't necessarily mean we're healthy – and the additives and preservatives we ingest on a daily basis aren't helping . . .


According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980 and most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.

For most of our ancestors, getting enough to eat was a daily struggle and, historically, an abundance of food is a very new phenomenon.

Read: South Africa's 'hidden hunger'

Nowadays, those of us who have money in our pockets only need to take a trip to the nearest supermarket to buy as much food as we want – and with for example food stamps in countries like the USA and food aid in drought-stricken countries, actual starvation has become almost a rarity. 

Quantity vs. quality

Survival doesn’t necessarily equal good health, and having enough food in our stomachs doesn’t mean we’re flourishing. Much of the food consumed worldwide is attractively presented but of poor nutritional value. Grains are refined and stripped of most of their nutrients and many additives and preservatives are added to foods to improve taste, appearance and shelf life.

Our ancestors mainly ate fresh meat and fresh fruit and vegetables – often from their own gardens – and although they had ways of preserving food for the long winter months, it didn’t involve the use of modern chemicals.

Refrigeration and modern methods of preservation are relatively new inventions, and although this has greatly improved the shelf life of products, enabling them to stay edible for months and be transported over great distances, it has questionable effects on our health.

A few examples of controversial food additives:

- Artificial colourings (used to colour food and drinks)
- High fructose corn syrup (a sweetener made from maize)
- Aspartame (an artificial sweetener)
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) (a flavour enhancer)
- Sodium benzoate (a preservative)
- Sodium nitrite (used for curing meat)
- Trans fat (mainly in hydrogenated vegetable oils)

Sodium nitrite

The controversy about MSG and aspartame is nothing new, but most of us have never even heard of sodium nitrite. Ingredients and additives are required by law to be listed, but let’s face it, how many of us have the time or patience to decipher the small print on food packaging?

Read: Understanding food labels: portions, energy

Sodium nitrite and its chemical cousin nitrate are anti-oxidants, used to cure meats like bacon, ham, and hot dog sausages. It blocks the growth of bacteria that cause botulism  and stops spoilage, and also gives cured meats their characteristic colour and flavour.

Dangers of sodium nitrites

Sodium nitrite can be dangerous to your health because of:

- Inhibition of oxygen transportation. A diet containing a lot of sodium nitrite can cause methemoglobinemia, which is when your red blood cells cannot transport oxygen throughout your body. Methemoglobinemia  causes respiratory problems and can be fatal.

- Cancer. Phyllis A. Balch reports in her book, Prescription for Dietary Wellness, sodium nitrites can produce nitrosamines, which increase your risk for developing cancer. According to the American Medical Association sodium nitrites can lead to brain and gastrointestinal cancer.

- Childhood type 1 diabetes risk. High intake of sodium nitrites during pregnancy may increase babies’ risk of type 1 diabetes, and the risk is higher for male babies.

- Additional effects. Sodium nitrites can irritate your digestive tract, including your mouth, aesophagus and stomach. It can also damage to your blood and your blood vessels, and at toxic levels it can cause rapid heart rate and difficulty breathing.

Can cured meats be produced without sodium nitrite?

Cured meats by definition must include sodium nitrite, so by definition bacon without nitrates or nitrites is uncured. Bacon is normally cured in a mixture of salt and water and sodium nitrite, which is added as a preservative. “Uncured” bacon uses natural nitrates, found in celery powder or juice and sea salt, which gives it a the same taste without the use of harmful chemicals.

Due to public demand "naturally cured” meats are available in America, Canada and the UK. In South Africa, however, the prevailing attitude is that synthetic nitrites in meat products are desirable because the benefits (mainly to prevent botulism) outweigh the risks.

What are your thougts? Give us your comments.

Read more:

Cured meats tied to cancer

Bacon bad for the lung

Hot dogs, bacon put heart at risk


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