Being a fan of cold cuts, a friend recently asked me what I thought of the cultured celery extract that has been popping up in “natural” hot dogs, bacon and luncheon meats supposedly as a healthier alternative to nitrates and nitrites which are linked increased risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Before I weigh in on this pronouncable but no less mysterious ingredient, let’s back it up a bit and talk about nitrates and nitrites.Chemically, nitrates (-NO3) and nitrites (-NO2) are readily converted to each other with the addition or subtraction of an oxygen molecule. In the body (specifically, in the presence of acid), nitrites react with protein components known as secondary amines to produce nitrosamines, the most undesirable byproduct of nitrates and nitrites. Nitrosamines are also produced when nitrites are exposed to high heat, i.e. charcoal BBQ. There’s also a risk that nitrites will react with the iron in hemoglobin making it less able to transport oxygen.
In nature, nitrates are present in vary amount in soil and therefore make into most vegetables including celery. So yes, they are “naturally occurring”, there’s no misuse of terminology here. Nitrites in vegetables come in a package deal with vitamin C and other antioxidants that prevent the formation of harmful byproducts. The food industry uses nitrates and nitrites to create a smokey flavour, pink colour, and increase shelf-life of meat products. The preservative wards off bacteria like clostridium botulinum. That’s a positive, I suppose.
So, is eating a “natural” slice of bacon made with celery extract better than eating one made with sodium nitrite? Both contain nitrites. What makes the “naturally occurring” nitrites from celery (and other veggies) harmless is that it occurs in combination with a bunch of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Extracting nitrites from the whole food eliminates the protective effect of these nutrients. Hence, its just free floating nitrite that can be converted to nitrosamines given the right conditions. Do you follow my logic?
My verdict – processed meats made with cultured celery extract may be termed “natural” but they still contain nitrites that have the potential to increase disease risk. And if I’m wrong, which I very well may be since I haven’t seen any research to back me up, there’s still the unchanged fact that processed meats are high in sodium, saturated fat and are made with very little semblance of real meat. So what if the nitrites come from a natural source? It’s still fake food to me.