Today’s news was not surprising that processed meats (bacon, hot dogs, lunch meats) increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes and believed to be from preservatives and high salt, according to a UK study. Recently, the artificial flavors and liquid smoke came under attack for possible toxic effects according to a story in the Health Ranger’s Natural News, but the story did not have much meat in it.
Most people may not be aware of the low quality fats and protein in the pork– and that some pork and chickens from factory farms have superbugs, not to mention the chemicals we keep hearing about. (There is a story on this under CAFOs here at the Journal). Fewer readers may not know that USDA approves the use of some sort of meat waste product (pink slime ?) to be mixed into the school beef at 10 percent, but due to budget cuts have now increased it to 15 percent. What about the health effects of the animals eating frankenfood and ethanol slop and chicken poop? Remember, the story a few months ago about adding ammonia to the meat destined for the fast food outlets? All of this is heavily subsidized by the government using your tax dollar to make it appear cheaper at the checkout– compared to the real farm fresh food.
This all reminded me to rerun a great article on the nitrate issue with the deli meat. There are alternatives like this post points out. Of course, all meats from properly pastured animals are healthy and important part of the diet when eaten in moderation.
Nov. 11, 2009–Mo Freschetti is Founder of the Zingerman Community of businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I have eaten at Zingerman’s Delicatessen and it is truly a delightful experience. You will find no better deli– even in New York City. Here is his article on nitrates added to salami and such. Nitrates reduce to nitrites during curing and nitrites are cancer-causing. Mo explains you can cure meats with nitrates and yet be legally labeled “nitrate-free.” How? By using celery juice! Definitely see Mo’s blog and go to the Zingerman deli and menu.
I spent a few minutes this week talking to Francois Vecchio, the man behind the crespone, finocchiana, cacciatore and felino salamis we carry. He gave me a chemistry lesson on salami making that I thought was worth sharing.
People are often worried about meat cured with nitrates. Is it a valid concern? I’ll get to that in a minute. First let me explain how nitrate cures meat. Welcome to a brief voyage through high school chemistry with apologies to mad scientists if I get any of the specifics incorrect.
Sodium nitrate NO3 is added to salami ingredients before they’re stuffed into the mostly air proof casing. Inside, the bacteria and microbial organisms live in an anaerobic environment—no oxygen.
Their activity sucks one of the three oxygen molecules away, turning sodium nitrate into sodium nitrite NO2. Sodium nitrite is unstable and aggressive to microbes. It’s the compound that does the real work of curing, making it safe for us to eat.
While it does its job another oxygen molecule is leeched off. What’s left is nitric oxide NO. This fixes the pigment color, keeping salami red. This molecule is safe.
Even though we started the cure with NO3 we ended up with NO. While Francois adds 150 parts per million of sodium nitrate to start the cure, only 2 or 3 PPM are left. The traditional thirty day curing process eliminates the substance.
So if cured salami doesn’t have any sodium nitrate or nitrite left, why are people afraid of it?
While traditionally cured meat doesn’t have any sodium nitrate/nitrite, non-traditionally cured meat may. During the middle of the last century, in between inventing Twinkies and Cheese Whiz, food scientists deciphered the chemistry that I just explained. Until then it’d been a two thousand year process that no one understood – people just knew it worked. The scientists correctly identified sodium nitrite NO2 as the money molecule. It did the majority of the curing work. NO3 didn’t seem to do much, so they experimented with adding NO2 directly to the meat, cutting NO3 out of the game. It worked. It saved time. Meat could be cured almost overnight. It could go to stores faster. It was a huge success.
Sort of. The problem is when the cure is rushed, NO2 doesn’t disappear like it does when you cure traditionally over thirty days. It’s still present in the meat. NO2 is a carcinogen.
That’s the reason people are worried about nitrate cured salami. Meats may be cured with sodium nitrite – not nitrate – and rushed to market when the nitrite carcinogen is still present. This isn’t true for the salamis we carry.
What about the “no nitrate” meat at supermarkets?
Nitrates are necessary for curing meat. You can’t cure without them and keep meat pink and safe. But if nitrates are necessary for curing meat, how can places like Whole Foods carry meats they say are nitrate free?
The trick is celery. It’s high in nitrates. Concentrated celery juice is used in the curing, instead of the naturally occurring mineral sodium nitrate. The FDA allows it to be called “Natural Flavor” instead of “Sodium Nitrate.”
Visit the Zingerman Community of Businesses, including the famous Deli.
Thanks to Anita Sorkin, Cincinnati WAPF and Cincinnati Real Food Connections and one of our Cincinnati correspondents, for sending this to the Journal.