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A World Without Bacon? What You Need To Know About Nitrates

August 15, 2023

Even for Americans who consciously consume less meat these days, a crispy rasher of bacon or a flame-grilled steak still rank among the splurge-worthy. But would your enthusiasm dampen if you knew each came with a significant cancer risk?

Bacon and charred meats each contain nitrates, which are under the microscope as researchers find links to increased disease risk and the European Parliament debates a total ban. A naturally occurring substance that historically allowed humans to preserve precious proteins, nitrates also are labeled a Class 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization, right up there with tobacco and asbestos.

What Are Nitrates Anyway?

In layman’s terms, nitrates are compounds formed naturally from nitrogen and oxygen; they also can be created synthetically. For nearly 5,000 years, they’ve been used as a preservative and color enhancer when added to meat — at first via salt that had been naturally contaminated — maintaining the rich pink color we associate with freshness and safety. They also help prevent foodborne illness and bacterial contamination, and keep deli and vacuum-sealed meats shelf-stable, meaning they require no refrigeration.

Sea salt, celery salt and beets contain natural nitrates that also can preserve food and increasingly are used in many processed meats, but even naturally occurring nitrates can produce the same negative health effects. If the packaging says “no nitrates added,” look more closely: There will probably be a line in parentheses or fine print that says “other than naturally occurring.” If you’re seeing paler-colored processed meats in your grocery aisles, it’s not because they’re spoiled — it’s because naturally sourced nitrates often produce less color.

Nitrates and Cancer

Early concerns centered on synthetic nitrates in processed meats — bacon, sausage, deli meat, vacuum-sealed meats — because there is overwhelming evidence linking their consumption with an increased cancer risk. Alcohol is the only other food so strongly correlated with cancer.

Another way harmful nitrates enter our systems: chargrilling meat. We know, we know — for some folks that’s the icing on the steak. But charred meat also has been linked to cancer. What about burnt toast, you ask? Roasted veggies? Campfire marshmallows? These too contains nitrates when charred, but research is scant. Until more is known, the National Cancer Institute suggests moderation.

For cancer prevention, nutritionists recommend limiting anything not in its natural state — always choose whole foods when you can. If you must consume processed meats, keep quantities small — a serving of more than 2 ounces a day (or about two to four slices of bacon) has been shown to increase your risk for prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers. If you have risk factors for colon cancer, heart disease or are a smoker, that should be an extra motivator for you to prioritize moderation, not least because processed meats tend to be loaded with salt.

While recommendations for natural and synthetic nitrates are the same, if, say, you’re making a charcuterie board and can choose naturally preserved meats, do it — at least there’s a chance that harmful nitrates have not yet formed in that packaging.

Are There Any ‘Good’ Nitrates?

Natural nitrates that are contained in vegetables like dark leafy greens and beets aren’t necessarily better for you, but those plants also offer chemicals that help to increase blood circulation, antioxidants that can destroy harmful compounds, and fiber that mitigates natural reactions, so the benefits outweigh the concern. That’s another reason nutritionists recommend a diet rich in variety: To avoid going overboard on any single thing. That’s why, for example, eating a variety of protein sources is better than fish every day — despite the many, many benefits of consuming fish — because concerns about, say, mercury poisoning in the fish will be mitigated.

So, will a little bacon now and again kill you? Probably not. Is it important to mix that up with a variety of whole foods? Absolutely. And some of the naturally occurring chemicals in those leafy greens can actually dispel or break down harmful nitrates in the body.

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