For many years now, I've written about the health hazards posed by cured meats, which are high in nitrates. As explained in "Top 9 Reasons to Optimize Your Nitric Oxide Production," not all dietary nitrates are the same.
While nitrates from plant foods promote beneficial nitric oxide production in your body, processed meats trigger conversion of nitrates into carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds.1 Nitrates from plants turn into beneficial nitric oxide due to the presence of antioxidants such as vitamin C and polyphenols, which are absent in processed meats.
Nitrates and nitrites are used to cure (preserve) processed meats of all kinds, and studies have repeatedly found they raise your risk of colorectal cancer, even at relatively small amounts.2,3,4,5,6
The World Cancer Research Fund7 has since 2007 warned against eating processed meat, defined as "meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation," due to its cancer risk. The American Institute for Cancer Research also recommends avoiding processed meats for this reason.8
Don't Trust Nitrate-Free Labels
If you're an avid label reader, chances are you've been swayed by processed meat products (either conventional or organic) labeled as "no nitrates or nitrites added," "no nitrite" or "uncured," thinking they must be a healthier option.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. An August 29, 2019, article9 in Consumer Reports highlights a regulatory loophole that allows such labels to mislead consumers. As it turns out, processed meat products labeled as nitrite-free do in fact contain nitrites and are no healthier than other processed meats. This is one of the dirty little secrets that has been kept hush-hush within the organic industry.
"'Thanks to the topsy-turvy world of government food labeling rules, 'no nitrites' doesn't mean no nitrites,' says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior food and nutrition policy analyst at CR.
Instead, it means that the nitrates and nitrites used to 'cure' — or preserve and flavor — meat come from celery or other natural sources, not synthetic ones, such as sodium nitrate or nitrite," Consumer Report writes.10
"To further confuse matters, 'their chemical composition is absolutely the same, and so are the health effects,' says Joseph Sebranek, Ph.D., Morrison Endowed Chair in meat science at Iowa State University …
Nitrates and nitrites prevent bacterial growth and give deli meat its distinctive color and flavor. But there's a downside. Nitrates convert to nitrites, and when nitrites interact with protein, that creates compounds called nitrosamines — which may cause cancer."