Nitrites In Meat; A Local Perspective
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photography by Nick Hook for Good Game
A coalition of leading scientists and politicians have called for chemicals called nitrites to be removed from processed meats such as bacon and ham. Among those backing the campaign to remove nitrites from meat are cancer specialists as they say nitrite-free alternatives are safer and should be more widely used.
Is this the latest short-lived consumer panic or a public health scandal on the same scale as horse meat being used in supermarkets? Grow Talk delves into the global and local meat industry to find out more about nitrites and whether we should be restricting our intake.
What are nitrites and nitrates and why are they used in processed meat?
The phrase ‘processed meats’ is an umbrella term which pertains to any meat that has been modified to extend its shelf life or change its taste. The main methods of processing are smoking, curing, or adding salt or preservatives. Processed meats include bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, ham, corned beef and beef jerky as well as canned meat and meat-based sauces.
Nitrites and nitrates are compounds formed of nitrogen and oxygen molecules. Nitrates are relatively inert until they are turned into nitrites by bacteria in the mouth or enzymes in the body. Nitrites can then turn into nitric oxide or the potentially detrimental nitrosamines which have been linked to cancer.
According to the British Meat Processors Association, nitrites are used in curing meats to help preserve them and add flavour. They are authorised as additives.
Nitrates and nitrites (potassium nitrate and sodium nitrite in particular) are also responsible for giving cured products such as ham and bacon their attractive pink colour.
What impact can nitrates and nitrites have on our health?
MPs and doctors who are part of the coalition report have said that there is “consensus of scientific opinion” that, when cooked and eaten, nitrites produce nitrosamines; chemicals which can cause cancer (BBC).
They drew attention to the 2015 World Health Organization report that said chemicals involved in processing could increase the risk of colorectal cancer. In addition, research from Glasgow University suggested that eating processed meat could increase the chance of developing breast cancer.
Doctors and scientists have also called on the government to launch a public awareness campaign, similar to the war on sugar and fattening foods, that will raise awareness of the risks that nitrites pose.
Professor Chris Elliott, the food scientist who ran the government’s investigation into the horse meat scandal, is leading the coalition alongside Dr Aseem Malhotra, a leading NHS cardiologist. Dr Malhotra warned:
“The meat industry must act fast, act now – or be condemned to a similar reputational blow to that dealt to tobacco.” (The Guardian)
However, a spokesperson for the British Meat Processor’s Association asserted that nitrites helped to hinder microbial growth and protect against botulism, which is a serious form of food poisoning. He explained:
“The industry is constantly looking at the levels of nitrites and nitrates, but reductions have to be balanced against the food safety issues and minimising waste.”
Are nitrites and nitrates a necessary part of meat production and preservation?
Although nitrates and nitrites are widely used across the meat industry, there are many companies that choose not to use them in their processes.
I spoke to Steve Williams, owner of ethically-centred meat company, Good Game, who have been providing nitrate-free bacon, sausages and burgers since 2013. Steve explained:
“When we started, everything was nitrate-free. We were inspired by the River Cottage in our approach. That’s how we started and that’s how we’ll carry on.”
I asked Steve if they use any alternatives to nitrates in order to give their sausages and bacon that characteristic colour. Steve explained that you can use special sugars or types of glucose in place of nitrates and nitrites in order to add colour but that he didn’t deem it necessary for their products.
Steve firmly believes that nitrates and nitrites have a place in the food industry, likening their necessity to the use of antibiotics in treating animals. However, he did make it clear that it was not necessary to use nitrates and nitrites across all meat products.
“Nitrites have a place in charcuterie in terms of safety, for example preserving meats like salami. For products like burgers and bacon however, cooking kills the bacteria. In these cases, they are purely used as a preservative.”
Without the use of nitrates and nitrites, Steve accepts that his products will have a shorter shelf-life than many of those widely available in the supermarkets. His attitude to using these additives purely for preservation purposes was very straightforward:
“If you want to preserve meat, put it in the freezer.”
Nitrites and nitrates; to eat or not to eat?
Studies into the effects of nitrites, in particular, are still ongoing and it is difficult, therefore, to come to a conclusion about the effect of this chemical compound on our health. What the report truly highlights, however, is the importance of knowing what goes into our food in order to make an informed choice about whether or not to consume it.
The detriments of large-scale industrial agriculture continue to be revealed; from the impact on our carbon footprint to our individual health and wellbeing, as well as that of the animals. Local meat company Pipers Farm detail “Eat Less Meat” as part of their Mission on their website, acknowledging that the amount of meat we eat, whether local or not, is “simply not sustainable”.
The pressure that the coalition are applying to the UK government in relation to nitrates and nitrites has further raised the awareness of the potential detriment of food additives. It also gives companies, both on a local and global scale, the opportunity to offer an alternative to the consumer and ensure that they are well-informed about the journey and processes that their meat has undertaken.
Nitrite-free meat is also available nationally thanks to companies like Finnebrogue. You can find their naked bacon and other nitrite-free products in major supermarkets. Northamptonshire company Houghton Hams also sell their nitrite-free bacon through leading online retailer, Ocado, who also stock Unearthed’s nitrate-free prosciutto.
If this proves one further nail in the industrial agriculture coffin for you, check out Grow Talk’s article featuring Veganuary.