What you need to know about nitrites and nitrates in the meat you eat.
Nitrates are in our guts and saliva, as well as in dirt and a lot of vegetables we eat. Our bodies naturally produce them and we depend on them to fight off harmful bacteria.
In the meat processing world, we use sodium nitrite or potassium nitrite to preserve and keep away bacteria that causes food poisoning in cooked meat products. Nitrites are the reason meats look pink; otherwise, they would turn brown quickly. For dry-aged products such as salumi, we use a combination of sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate for preserving and keeping pathogens away.
Despite the good they can do, they’ve received a bad reputation for a long time, and for good reasons.
Nitrites and nitrates are compounds consisting of nitrogen and oxygen atoms. Nitrates can turn into nitrites, which can form either nitric oxide (good) or nitrosamines (carcinogenic/bad). The cooking method influences this. For example, cooking bacon in the oven at lower temperatures is better to produce good nitric oxide than frying it in a pan at higher temps, which can produce bad nitrosamines.
For hams, bacons, and sausages to cure and turn pink, nitrite is needed. Curing is a food preservation and flavoring process by which you add a combination of salt, nitrates, nitrites and sugar, with the goal of drawing moisture out of the food by the process of osmosis.
Artificial nitrites get a bad rap, rightfully so. To avoid them, some in the industry use natural nitrites in the form of celery powder to cure meats. But at Na*Kyrsie, we do not use this product and here is why.
To use celery powder to cure meat, the celery plant must first be harvested, juiced and fermented to convert the nitrate to nitrite, and then dried into a powder. The only reason a manufacturer would add celery powder or celery juice to a product is to add nitrites. And I’m not in favor of that because it’s still a nitrite that can produce nitrosamines, which are potentially harmful to your health. And our body does not recognize it any differently than sodium nitrite or potassium nitrite.
In addition, when this product was first developed, the United States Department of Agriculture did not recognize celery powder as a curing agent, meaning they did not recognize it as a nitrite. So they made all processors call the product uncured. However, now, after additional research and huge success with the product, the USDA considers these products as a curing agent. Yet companies are still required to promote these meat products as uncured on the label.
Also, every product that uses celery powder to cure is required to include this statement on their label, “No nitrites added except for those naturally occurring in ingredients used.” That seems contradictory, if not downright dishonest.
We have never used celery powder in our products because we feel the labeling is unethical and we have always felt it is silly to replace artificial nitrites with natural nitrites in an attempt to promote health.
I’ve become increasingly interested in this issue recently because my young son is a meat lover.
A few weeks ago, I posted pictures of my son eating a couple of cured meat items and announced we were working on something big. And we’re almost there!
We are in the very final stages of developing something that could truly make cured meats nitrite- and nitrate-free. We feel these products are going to make cured meats better for you – and with a cleaner flavor and brighter color. Can’t wait to share it with you.