Cured Meats Beneficial

Thursday Aug 06 2009
by Trent Loos and Sarah Muirhead


Cured Meats Found to Hold Health Benefits
(7/11/2009)  Trent Loos

A growing body of medical evidence suggests that dietary nitrates and nitrites, like those commonly found in hot dogs and other cured meats, are vital to the prevention and treatment of heart disease.
For the past 10 years, Dr. Nathan Bryan, a medical researcher at the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine, The University of Texas, Houston Health Sciences Center, along with others, has been working to determine the importance of dietary nitrite and nitrate consumption as a means to prevent and treat cardiovascular and other diseases associated with nitric oxide insufficiency in the diet.

"Nitric oxide is an important signaling molecule in the human body to regulate numerous physiological functions including blood flow to tissues and organs. The conversion of nitrite and nitrate to nitric oxide in human tissues is obviously an important finding," said Bryan. He pointed out that cardio-protective levels of nitrites and nitrates can easily be achieved by increasing the consumption of nitrite/nitrate-rich foods, such as cured meats and certain fruits and vegetables (Table).
The regular intake of nitrite-containing food appears to ensure that blood and tissue levels of nitrite and nitric oxide pools in the body are maintained at adequate levels. Even low levels of supplemental nitrite, Bryan said, have been shown to enhance blood flow. Dietary sources of nitric oxide metabolites could therefore improve circulation and oxygen delivery, he noted.

Additionally, the dietary inclusion of nitrites and nitrates may provide a rescue or protective pathway for people at risk for cardiovascular disease, said Bryan. He explained any intervention which increases blood and tissue concentrations of nitrite may also provide protection against tissue damage.

Louis J. Ignarro, 1998 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, writes in the medical textbook entitled "Food, Nutrition and the Nitric Oxide Pathway: Bioactivaton and Bioavailability," that the field of nitric oxide "continues to evolve and recent research further confirms that it (nitric oxide) is one of the most important molecules produced within our body."  To date more than 100,000 papers have been published on the molecule.

"Nitric oxide or nitric oxcide was known for many years as a toxic air pollutant expelled from car exhaust. You can imagine the impact of the story when it was discovered that such a gaseous molecule is produced in our body. Even more remarkable is the fact that such a gas is produced within our body to serve as a signal for cell to cell communication or for the transduction of nerve impulses," said Ignarro. Nitric oxcide regulates blood pressure, causes penile erection, and controls the action of almost every cell in our body, he said. The human immune system also uses nitric oxide in fighting viral, bacterial and parasitic infections, and tumors.

Nitric oxcide transmits messages between nerve cells and has been found to be associated with the processes of learning, memory, sleeping, feeling pain and depression. It is a key mediator in inflammation.

"Early studies on nitric oxcide stemmed from work with nitroglycerin and other nitrovasodilators as we attempted to understand how these medicines worked that had been used for hundreds of years. As we discovered, nitroglycerin makes nitric oxcide which accounts for its therapeutic efficacy for angina by dilating constricted and diseased blood vessels in the heart," said Ignarro.
There is still much to be learned about the production and regulation of nitric oxcide within the human body. "The limitations to our understanding arise from the fact that its production is very complex and once produced, the nitric oxcide gas is degraded in less than one second as it diffuses to reach its cellular target or is quickly inactivated by reaction with oxygen, oxygen radicals or proteins. We do know, however, that the loss of our ability to form nitric oxcide, namely endothelial dysfunction, leads to a number of diseases including cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in the Western world," said Ignarro, noting that loss of nitric oxcide function is one of the earliest indicators or markers of disease.

No documented cancer risk

Since the early 1980s there have been numerous associations made between nitrosamines and human cancers as a result of nitrite (sodium nitrite) being added to meat as a preservative. However, it remains unknown at what levels, if any, nitrosamines are formed in humans after they eat cured meat products, or for that matter what even constitutes a dangerous level in meat or in humans.

Likewise, a causative link between nitrite and nitrate exposure and cancer is still missing, said Bryan. A two-year study on the carcinogenicity of nitrite by the National Institute of Health conclusively found there was no increased evidence of carcinogenic activity in male or female rats or mice as a result.
Moreover, if nitrite were a carcinogen, Bryan said people would be advised to avoid swallowing since saliva contains nitrite. Nitrites also are pumped directly into the heart for therapy purposes when heart attacks occur.  "Nitrites and nitrates are naturally found in our bodies and are in no way a health risk. Quite simply, they are good for us and essential for our cardiovascular health," said Bryan.
Given his findings and those of other scientists working in this area, Bryan said he is concerned by what he calls the misinformation being distributed by some groups regarding the "health risks" of nitrites and nitrates. 
The Cancer Project is one of those groups and initiated a campaign around the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis, Mo., where it used an image of hot dogs in a cigarette carton to push the message of: "One way we can help prevent cancer - in addition to not smoking - is to stop eating hot dogs and other processed meats." 

In 2006, 1.5 billion pounds of hot dogs were consumed. Sixty-two percent of all Americans eat some form of processed pork, with the average person eating 32 lb. of it a year. 
According to the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council's 2009 survey of hot dog and sausage consumption at major league ballparks in the United States, ballparks expected to sell 21 million hot dogs this season.

Bryan pointed out that since lettuce and other leafy green vegetables actually contain many more nitrites and nitrates than do cured meats, The Cancer Project and those with a concern about these vitamin-like molecules should also consider eliminating salads and all vegetables at ball games.  Actually, studies show that people normally consume more nitrates from their intake of vegetables than from the cured meat products they eat. Spinach, beets, radishes, celery and cabbages are among the vegetables that generally contain very high concentrations of nitrates.  An estimate out of the University of Minnesota puts 10% of the human exposure to nitrite in the digestive tract coming from cured meats and 90% coming from vegetables and other sources.

Nitrates can be reduced to nitrites by certain microorganisms present in foods and in the gastrointestinal tract, and this has resulted in nitrite toxicity in infants fed vegetables with a high nitrate level. However, no evidence currently exists implicating nitrite itself as a carcinogen.  "There is absolutely no scientific basis to single out cured and processed meats as a culprit in certain cancers," said Bryan.  For a lethal dose, 22 milligrams of sodium nitrite per kilogram of bodyweight would be needed. That means a 154-pound adult would have to consume, at once, 18.57 lb. of cured meat product containing 200 ppm sodium nitrite (because nitrite is rapidly converted to nitric oxide during the curing process, the 18.57 lb. figure should be tripled at least). Even if a person could eat that amount of cured meat, it is thought that salt, not nitrite, probably would be the toxic factor.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Trent Loos is a sixth-generation farmer/rancher and founder of Faces Of Agriculture. He is a regular contributor of commentary and articles to Feedstuffs and produces his own radio and television programs on matter related to food production.



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