The Good, Bad, and Ugly: Nitrites and Their Role in Preserving Meats

updated May 3, 2019
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Present in such modern picnic food as cold cuts and hot dogs, but used as a traditional meat-curing ingredient since the 16th century, studies have more recently labeled nitrites as possible carcinogens.

With Grill Month in full swing, we thought we’d take a moment to give you the scoop on what exactly nitrates are and what they’ve been doing in our food all these years. Read on!

Nitrates are a naturally occurring form of potassium first discovered during the Middle Ages and given the name ‘saltpeter.’ When used for curing, nitrates react with the meat tissues to form nitrites. These days, saltpeter is often replaced with a small amount of pure nitrite.

Nitrites play a key chemical and cosmetic roles in curing and processing meats:

  • They slow or stop the growth of bacteria as the meat is curing, specifically botulism.

  • They keep the fat within the meat fresh and prevent it from going rancid.

  • They contribute a sharp, “cured” flavor that we’ve come to like and associate with cured meats.

  • They give cured meats their characteristic rosy-red color.

Whether or not nitrites cause cancer is still widely debated, with some studies
confirming carcinogenic effects and other studies proclaiming the
health-benefits of nitrites!

Good or bad, the amount of nitrites in our food has steadily decreased over the past several decades. Today, residual nitrates and nitrites in cured meat must be less than 200 parts per million (0.0002%) in the United States.

Like most things we eat, we have a feeling it’s all about moderation and being sensible. What do you think?

Related: Small Business Spotlight: La Quercia Artisan Cured Meats

(Image: Flickr member thebusybrain licensed under Creative Commons)