Nitrate-cured Meats: Salami, Hot Dogs, Lunch Meats, Etc.

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.  

16 responses to “Nitrate-cured Meats: Salami, Hot Dogs, Lunch Meats, Etc.

  1. Good post, I wish I could visit the deli but it’s too far away.

    Does curing meat with celery juice mean that meat contains nitrites?

  2. Thank you so much for explaining this! So, I want to ask my food producers for meats cured specifically with NO3, right?

  3. My husband and I are going to start curing our own ham, and pork products. Where can I find out how to do this with celery juice? I’m now excited about all our pork products.


  4. SO the question one needs to ask then is has the product been cured for at least 30 days?

  5. It’s a shame that the “chemist” who explains all this leaves out a salient point about the last molecule left standing in this chain of events: NO, nitric oxide.
    Its importance to our health cannot be over emphasized because it’s a vascular dilator. It makes your blood vessels expand, and more importantly, it doesn’t allow your leukocytes (white blood cells) to stick together. In other words, in a diet rich in L-arginine, the source of NO, you wont get hardening of the arteries unless you wipe out the Nitric Oxide by eating too much salt. Sodium works against NO.
    This is why I personally don’t eat fermented meats. The salt content is too high.
    In closing, it’s ironic that the FDA is creating challenges to people’s access to healthy foods that are rich in L-arginine, but turn the Blind Eye From Hell to an ocean of industrially crafted “foods” bathed in salt. The latter DOES CAUSE heart disease. Any other opinion is a ribald lie.

  6. Thanks for clearing this up. I’ve been buying “Nitrate free” meat not realizing why the celery juice is there. I never knew, and I’m the type who reads every word of the label, on the rare occasion I buy packaged food.

  7. Interesting – I have been choosing “nitrate-free” on the rare occasion I buy deli meats. Better is probably to cut them out altogether – and reduce other meats as well. We are omnivores and need some meat between our teeth (at least, I do) – but much less than we used to have.

  8. Pingback: More Beefs on Bacon, Hot Dogs and Lunch Meats « Journal of Natural Food and Healing

  9. Michelle Malmberg

    If celery is high in nitrates, is that because it is conventionally grown and fertilized with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers? Apparently this is what happens to carrots, and they become super-high in nitrates to the point where feeding them to infants is unadvisable.
    We civilized beings are so stupid.

  10. Does curing meat with the celery juice mean that it’s healthy to eat?

  11. If you do a little more digging you will learn that hardly any foods are preserved with nitrate anymore. It’s nitrites you need to watch out for. All that fancy two-stepping about how the nitrates switch to “safe” nitrites is just a screen to get people to eat processed foods. Here’s an idea: Get cancer, go to Cancer Treatment Centers of America and get enlightened when you meet with your nutritionist assigned to you there. At CTCA I was told to never, ever eat foods with nitrites in them. Period. As a researcher, I went home and looked all this up. And guess what? They stopped using nitrates a long time ago and now it’s nitrites. No difference. Just a sales tactic. Look for the celery on the ingredients label and skip everything else. Better yet, don’t eat processed foods.

  12. Gabriel Claycamp

    Wow, this article is very misleading. And the comments are more uninformed.

    1st off: Nitrites are not a proven carcinogen in anyway. The studies that “proved it” have been roundly debunked and the point of the studies was not that NO 2 is a carcinogen but that when exposed to high heat, residual NO2 could turn into Nitrosiamines. This is what the study accuses of being carcinogenic. However, they have recently discovered Nitrosiamines in many many foods including spinach, celery, and radishes. not because of fertilizers, because it is a natural part of soil.

    As for the statement that traditionally cured meats don’t have any Nitrates/Nitrites; this isn’t true either. The Romans were the first to use them, they are mined naturally out of the earth in the form of “red salt”.
    True: scientists have figured out the “money molecule” and refined it and that is what meat curers usually use. And it is true that NO3 has to break down to NO2 in order to “cure the meat”.

    However: even the most speedy processed crap sausage and bologna in this country has to be processed according to USDA parts per million regulations which only allow a certain amount to be added SO THAT IT WILL HAVE BROKEN DOWN by the time we eat it. Unless the was a bad batch formulation, there should be no residual NO2 in commercial products. It isn’t there.

    Yes, slow cure, long aged products are better tasting, but they have the same amount of residual NO2 as Oscar Meyer bologna.

    Overall, this article has a fundamental issue: If you are saying that NO2 is bad, and that traditional long curing methods make it good, why do you care if you use celery juice? Still the same NO2… isn’t the curing time that makes these products “better” not the celery?

  13. Gabriel Claycamp

    actually one more that will clarify as well:

    • I will just post it here:
      Sodium Nitrite Q&A

      What is sodium nitrite?
      Sodium nitrite is a salt and an anti-oxidant that is used to cure meats like ham, bacon and hot dogs. Sodium nitrite serves a vital public health function: it blocks the growth of botulism-causing bacteria and prevents spoilage. Sodium nitrite also gives cured meats their characteristic color and flavor. Also, USDA-sponsored research indicates that sodium nitrite can help prevent the growth of Listeria monocytogenes, an environmental bacterium that can cause illness in some at-risk populations.

      Are cured meats the major source of sodium nitrite?
      The amount of nitrate in some vegetables can be very high. Spinach, for example, may contain 500 to 1900 parts per million of sodium nitrate. Less than five percent of daily sodium nitrite intake comes from cured meats. Nearly 93 percent of sodium nitrite comes from leafy vegetables & tubers and our own saliva. Vegetables contain sodium nitrate, which is converted to sodium nitrite when it comes into contact with saliva in the mouth.

      Can cured meats be produced without sodium nitrite?
      Cured meats by their definition must include sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite is the ingredient that gives a product like ham its color and taste. Without sodium nitrite, these products’ shelf life would be shortened substantially.

      Some uncured products available today use vegetable-based ingredients like celery juice, which may contain nitrate naturally, to deliver a color and flavor similar to traditionally cured meats. When the sodium nitrate in celery, or other sodium nitrate-containing vegetables, is exposed to certain types of bacteria in the product, the nitrate is converted to sodium nitrite, which results in product characteristics similar to traditionally cured meat products. The amount of sodium nitrite consumed from these types of products versus traditionally cured meat products is virtually the same.

      Years ago, I heard some people say that sodium nitrite causes cancer. Is sodium nitrite safe?
      Numerous scientific panels have evaluated sodium nitrite safety and the conclusions have essentially been the same: sodium nitrite is not only safe, it’s an essential public health tool because it has a proven track record of preventing botulism. The National Toxicology Program, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, conducted a multi-year study to evaluate sodium nitrite’s safety. The study found that sodium nitrite was safe at the levels used.

      Is it true that sodium nitrite may have health benefits?
      Scientists at the National Institutes of Health over the last several years have announced a number of studies that document the health benefits of sodium nitrite. These scientists have concluded that sodium nitrite is a potential new treatment for organ transplantation, heart attacks, sickle cell disease, and leg vascular problems.

      For more information on Sodium Nitrite, please see the Sodium Nitrite Fact Sheet.

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