Questions & Answers on Nitrites

Thursday Aug 27 2009
by Dr. Nathan Bryan

Feedstuffs, July 20, 2009

Feedstuffs Reprint

Dr. Nathan Bryan of The University of Texas has answered the following ques-
tions on his work with nitrates and nitrites in foods and the health benefits
he believes they provide.

Q. Are the nitrates/nitrites in vegetables/fruits the same chemically as the
nitrates in cured meats?
A. They are exactly the same chemically. The only difference is that in
fruits and vegetables, nitrites/nitrates are present naturally from incorpora-
tion through the nitrogen cycle. Of course, they are added as salts to cured
meats, but the residual nitrite or nitrate is just the same and sometimes higher in
vegetables than what is added to meats.

Q. The nitrites/nitrates in cured meats are synthetic, so are they the same as
coming from vegetables or fruit?
A. They are synthetic in that they are sodium or potassium salts added exog-
enously, but in solution (and in the body), they occur naturally as anions, just as in
the vegetables. The high water content of meats allows complete dissociation to
the anions, so what you are ingesting is the same as what you ingest in the form
of vegetables.

Q. Nitrite-free bacon appears to have 3 mg/100 mg of nitrites. Is this na-
tive to bacon? Are there other meats that have nitrites on their own without
being cured?
A. There are low levels of nitrites and nitrates in all tissues. Surprisingly,
this bacon was labeled as nitrite-free bacon (or organically cured) but con-
tained twice as much nitrite as the naturally cured bacon.

Q. From your perspective as a scientist, as to your knowledge in research,
do you consume cured meat? What is your opinion about cured meat? Is it
healthy or harmful?
A. I do not avoid cured or processed meats. I commonly eat bacon for break-
fast one to two days per week and have a sandwich (with luncheon meats) or
hot dog on occasion. I eat these without guilt or fear. An occasional hot dog
or sandwich can be part of a balanced, healthy diet.

Q. Regarding vegetables like spinach, is there a difference between the
nitrite content of cooked and raw vegetables?
A. What we have reported on is the content in raw vegetables. The manner
in which you cook will affect the content of nitrites and nitrates. Raw or steamed
vegetables contain the most. However, when you cook vegetables in water, ni-
trite and nitrate — being water soluble — come out in solution, so the content
in the cooked vegetables is much less. In fact, that is how we extract the nitrite and
nitrate from the raw vegetables.

Q. Niman Ranch has a bacon with nitrites derived from celery. Is this
healthier than regular cured (synthetic nitrite) bacon?
A. The notion of "nitrite-free" or "or-ganically cured" meats is a public decep-
tion. In this method of curing, instead of adding nitrite salts directly to the meats,
celery salt is added, which is about 50% nitrate. Then, a starter culture of bacteria
is added to the celery salt to reduce the endogenous nitrate to nitrite, "the cura-
tive molecule." So, they can label it nitrite free, but, in fact, they are generating more
nitrite from the celery salt than what is allowed to be added as a salt.

That is the reason for the higher nitrite content in the nitrite-free bacon. It is the
exact same molecule as the one added to regular cured meats; it just comes from a
natural source: celery. I think it is probably less healthy than regular cured
meats because of the bacteria load and the unknown efficacy of conversion by
the bacteria. My hope is that we create awareness and educate scientists, physi-
cians and food people of this concept.

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