Historically, salt has been used to preserve meat, however this gave meat a brownish - gray colour that many consumers find to be unappetizing. In the early 1900’s, due to poor meat curing, food - borne botulism was common and it was normally the cause of ill prepared home-canned foods, fermented dishes that lacked sufficient amounts of salt and acid necessary for preservation. This has led to the discovery of sodium nitrite. When sodium nitrite is added to meat products, it gives the meat the desirable taste and red/pinkish color with an extended shelf life. It is notable that very little sodium nitrite is required to achieve this effect, 2 to 14 parts per million(ppm).
Sodium nitrite has raised quite a lot of various questions over the years with many people starting movements that go as far as banning the use of nitrites, nitrates in processed foods. There have been many studies that show a clear association between consuming processed meats and certain types of cancer then there have been others that show no correlation at all. It is understandable why many consumers can be confused about what to believe.
One of the studies has found that children who consume three or more hot dogs a week are more likely to develop leukemia while another study found that eating hot dogs during pregnancy can increase the chances of brain tumors in babies.
Let’s take a look at bacon as an example. When sodium nitrite is used to preserve something like bacon and you burn bits of the bacon while cooking, it is known that the burning combined with the sodium nitrite then combined with the gastric acid in the stomach can produce carcinogens. This would raise one’s risk of cancers associated with the oral cavity, urinary bladder, esophagus, stomach and brain. It is easy to see why it’s not ideal to be consuming processed meat everyday of the week.
A mind blowing fact is that vegetables account for most of the nitrates many people consume in their typical everyday diet. So, the more vegetables one eats, the more one would consume nitrates. So should we all stop eating our vegetables? No. It is known that the more vegetables we eat, the lower is the risk of developing cancers due to the cancer-fighting properties of vegetables. How is this possible? The nitrites are less likely to be transformed into harmful chemicals under the presence of vitamin C and other antioxidants. It would be over simplifying to say that one substance is the root of all evil.
In many studies, it’s been observed that many people who consumed a lot of processed meat had also consumed the least amount of vitamin C in their diet and people who consumed processed meats but also ate vitamin C containing foods had no increase in cancer rates.
The take away here can be that if you must have foods containing processed meat, do so in moderation and always include fruits & vegetables as a part of a healthy diet. Preservatives can be easily avoided by purchasing fresh meat which can also be better economically and environmentally.