The first time I saw nitrate-free bacon at Trader Joe’s I wondered why it wasn’t made with sustainably-sourced pork. “What’s the point?” I thought. Indeed, has the public been mislead to care about one issue, when the real issue is more pervasive and subtle?
Let’s first look at the truths surrounding nitrates:
- Nitrates have been used for hundreds of years to preserve meats and dairy products.
- Nitrates convert to nitrites during the curing process. By adding sodium nitrite manufacturers were able to expedite the curing timeline.
- While both of these components prevent rancidity and the growth of bacteria, consuming excess amounts can be toxic in all mammals.
- Celery, salad greens, cabbage, turnips and spinach all contain nitrates. So does fresh meat.
- Our bodies actually require nitrates in moderation. One function they perform is to kill oral germs, being a compound found in saliva. They have also been found to dilate blood vessels, increasing blood flow. Increased nitrite and nitrate consumption, in the form of nitrate-rich produce, is now being recommended after heart attacks!
- Over the last decade nitrates have gotten a bad rap. Manufacturers began adding vegetable-sourced preservatives, instead of sodium nitrite, usually celery juice or celery powder.
IS CELERY JUICE A GOOD ALTERNATIVE TO CHEMICAL NITRITES?
The short answer is “no.” Nitrate-free has become a popular selling point for many bacon producers. However, celery juice contains high levels of nitrates, which is why it is being used.
The use of celery juice as a source of nitrates is not regulated by the USDA. Strict guidelines are in place for all foods containing sodium nitrite; so its quantity is limited to a small fraction of the recipe. 10 parts per million (or less) remain once the curing process is complete. This is not the case with celery juice. It can be used in lesser, or more commonly, higher quantities with zero regulation or standardization. Therefore, “nitrate-free” bacon will likely have larger amounts of nitrates than bacon without this label, up to ten times the amount, according to the The Journal of Food Protection.
Also, if the ingredients do not say “organic celery juice” celery is one of the “dirty dozen,” a crop heavily treated with pesticides. We are creating a demand for conventional celery and therefore ongoing pesticide use.
WHAT’S THE BIGGER ISSUE?
When we purchase bacon that is “nitrate-free,” but not pasture-raised or organic, we are doing two things:
- We are supporting a meat that has not been sustainably sourced. The meat itself isn’t healthy just because the label says “nitrate-free.” The pork still comes from a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). And the pork industry is the among the worst, with pigs literally never seeing the light of day from the time they are born to the time they are slaughtered.
- And secondly, we are perhaps ingesting greater amounts of nitrates, instead of less.
Organic producers often standardize their natural preservative quantities, with healthfulness and transparency toward customers in mind.
IF NITRATES ARE NEEDED IN OUR DIET, HOW DID “NITRATE-FREE” BECOME POPULAR?
Here are the health issues concerning nitrates that make them worthy of caution:
- As aforementioned, large quantities of nitrates are not desirable in any mammal diet. There is a carcinogenic compound, called N- nitrosamines, associated with various forms of cancer, leukemia, lung disease and migraines. So while some nitrate consumption is recommended, too much can be disease causing. How to measure? One study said the equivalent of 12 hotdogs a month was the limit. Frankly, (no pun intended), we love Applegate Farm’s grass-fed organic hotdogs*. They’re convenient and well-sourced. But 12 hotdogs a month comes along pretty quickly when my kids eat 2-3 hotdogs in one sitting.
- An additional danger from nitrites and nitrates occurs when they are heated to high temperatures! This was news to me. The carcinogenic compound, N-nitrosamines, is produced. However, there are ways to inhibit this conversion: consuming Vitamins C, D and E. Some people drink orange juice when eating cured meats, to this purpose. Most cured meat companies add ascorbic acid to their meat for the same reason. These vitamins are naturally occurring in the fruits and vegetables that are high in nitrates, which allows them to naturally inhibit the conversion to nitrosamines. (However, the amount of these vitamins found in the amount of celery used to cure meat is not high enough to inhibit the conversion.)
- Nitrosamines are also formed when nitrites combine with protein and stomach acid. In addition to adding Vitamin C, some meat producers, therefore, add alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), to prevent this formation. Have you seen ascorbic acid or alpha-tocopherol in your cured meats? Now we know why.
- High-nitrate produce that is not grown organically, using high nitrate fertilizers, will have higher levels of nitrates and a bitter flavor. This increased nitrate content is not desirable, being out of balance with the vegetable’s natural nutritional profile, especially Vitamins C and D. So not only do we want to limit our nitrate consumption from cured meats, we should specifically avoid conventional produce that’s grown with synthetic fertilizers. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] even reveals, “Nitrates and nitrites in fertilizers readily migrate from fertilized soil to groundwater.”)
WHAT DOES “UNCURED” MEAN?
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a division of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), does not yet recognize natural preservatives, such as celery products, as safe anti-pathogenic curing agents. Therefore, meats that are cured with celery, or other vegetable sources, must be marked “uncured” despite that fact that they are indeed cured. Natural curing agents are considered “flavorings.”
So it’s not really a cut and dry issue: avoid all nitrates. The issue is more accurately that we need to have an awareness of how many nitrates we are consuming and, on a different note, look at the meat sourcing.
Labels are designed to trick us. Again, nitrate-free does not mean healthy. Look for bacon or other processed meats that say “pasture-raised,” “grass-fed” and “organic.” Also remember to look at the other ingredients in your cured meat and consider the company that makes the product. Is the company sustainably-minded? What are the other ingredients? If your cured meat does not contain a Vitamin C source, consider consuming the meat with a food source of Vitamin C. Or eat bacon for lunch on a sunny patio, to get your Vitamin D!
If you enjoyed this article, check out my Facebook page and blog where I post the best and latest insights on nutrition, food philosophy and healing, as well as classic and cutting edge grain-free recipes. Here’s one recipe with a moderate amount of sustainably-sourced pepperoni: Portobello Mushroom Pizzas!
*Applegate Farms has been among the most prominent companies to push the USDA for more clear and accurate labeling. Their hotdogs show similar levels of nitrates and nitrites to conventional brands, despite being naturally sourced.
So which brands do you recommend for bacon/ham/hot dogs? We get a pastured pig each year, but that doesn’t get us as much bacon as we’d like for the year.
Kristen Michaelis says
A number of local farmers sell their own bacon/ham/hotdogs. We buy a heritage breed hog every year from a local rancher and stuff our freezer full. That said, when that runs out I do rely on Applegate. My friend Jenny (www.nourishedkitchen.com) has actually visited some of their supplier farms and has only glowing things to say about the quality standards of their co-op/suppliers.
Hope that helps!
Amy Baker via Facebook says
Thank you for this. They might say they’re uncured, but they definitely are cured, just with celery powder, juice or seed. Whether you choose to eat it or not, it gives some of us migraines (for me, because it’s a vasodilator), and so I found out this little trick the hard way.
Jessica Johnson via Facebook says
Donna we were just talking about this today!
What if they only use celery powder?
Megan Stevens says
Celery powder contains nitrates; so the issues are the same. We should eat products that contain celery powder in moderation.
It doesn’t say organic before the celery powder on the Applegate ingredients list pictured above. Does this mean that this should be avoided in your opinion?
Megan Stevens says
I’ll contact the company and ask them about their sourcing of this ingredient. In general I like their products and think they’re a good convenience option if local, sustainable bacon/hot dogs are not accessible. If their celery powder is conventional, it helps them to know that consumers care and “demand” a change. I’ll return here with their comment.
Megan Stevens says
Hi Kevin, I heard back promptly from Applegate. Here is their reply: “Thanks for reaching out to us about this important topic. At this time, the celery we use in our products is unfortunately not organic. That said, we are always working to improve our products and hope to make this a reality in the future. What I can say is that our celery powder is absolutely non-GMO.” Hope this helps with your decision. I personally will continue to occasionally buy this product, not as a staple, hoping they’ll make the change to organic celery powder.
Do you know that Hormel Foods acquired Applegate in the last year Megan? Not sure where it’d influence whether or not you still consume their products, but thought it might be worth mentioning. Very informative article btw, thanks for clarifying about this subject. 🙂
I’m confused because you say that nitrates are present in produce like celery and cabbage and that they are good for us in moderation, but then you seem to indicate we shouldn’t even eat “uncured” hot dogs from good sources that are grass fed, because of the nitrates from the celery juice. ???
Megan Stevens says
Hi Shannon, nitrates are necessary in moderation, whatever their whole-food source. I do advocate for well-sourced bacon and even hot dogs, in moderation. The article mentions how many in a month is the wise limit.
Applegate is now owned by Hormel. I try to buy bacon from a local farm, but when I have to buy it in a store I get U.S. Wellness, Beeler, or Pedersons. I hope I’m supporting the good guys.
Megan Stevens says
Thanks for sharing your insights! Beeler does use some GM feed; but they’re good folks. I have spoken to them on the phone. It’s a hard world for farmers. I don’t buy their bacon anymore, because of the GM feed; but I sympathize with their struggle. I do like U.S. Wellness Meats and Pederson’s, although I have not investigated the latter. I appreciate the spirit and integrity with which Applegate has operated in the past and hope to see that continue, and even improve, under their new ownership. I don’t like supporting Hormel; but I appreciate the broader distribution Applegate will gain and perhaps the increased consumer demand for sustainable meat products as a result.
Kristen Michaelis says
One of my good friends, Jenny from Nourished Kitchen, has spoken extensively with Applegate through this transition. She says that for now, everything within Applegate will still be run as it always has. It is, for all intents and purposes, still operating as its own company and free to make its own decisions. It’s simply a subsidiary now. So, if the issue is that you don’t want even a fraction of your dollars to go to Hormel, I get it. But if the issue is a fear that the quality of their products has somehow changed, then that fear is currently unfounded.
I just now saw the Hormel posts lol (didn’t see them before I asked before) nevermind my earlier post , mea culpa.
I disagree that there isn’t a difference between the nitrates in cured meets and the celery juice used in the no nitrate products. I’ve always had an intolerance to cured meats since I was was a baby. I couldn’t even keep down my mothers breast milk. I get really sick and throw up until I’m throwing up bile every time I eat nitrates no matter how small the quantity. I do not have this reaction with meats with celery juice used as a preservative. I thought I may have outgrown my intolerance but recently ate pizza where the person who made puzza didn’t listen and still put pepperoni on the puzza. I didn’t know because they put it under the cheese. I got sick soon after.
Great article – This has been on my mind a lot actually so I’m glad I ran across this!! I work on my family’s farm selling pastured meat products and you seriously cannot find products like we raise anywhere in Oregon (we are all non-gmo, completely pasture raised b/c we have water rights to irrigate pastures) and yet people are concerned about nitrates in the bacon and hams. I just don’t know what to tell them but I have started to do some research and this is a great start. For one, it’s not like you eat pounds of bacon and ham every single day!! Since they’re pricier, our customers tend to eat them as a special treat. And again – the most important part is supporting local farmers!!
(also, we had our butcher do a nitrate-free recipe for the bacon and it just didn’t taste like bacon!!)
Megan Stevens says
Hi Hayden, I appreciate hearing about your experience. I’m glad this was helpful. And happy to learn about your wonderful farm! Thanks for all you do!
Wow, thank you for this article! Very informative and well written. In today’s age there’s too much information (who though that would ever be a problem?!) and forming an opinion as an individual often seems impossible
Hi! Pregnant women are warned against nitrates, so that might explain some of the false marketing.
I tried the Applegate uncured hot dogs several years ago and I had a worse reaction than I do from nitrates/nitrites in normal hot dogs and bacon. I noticed the Applegate dogs were a bright shade of red, indicating a large amount of nitrates. I had such a bad reaction from them that I try to stay away from “uncured” foods now.
Maybe the real solution is to not eat pork. Even Whole Foods, which rates the degree of humanity used in production of their meats, admits that there is no top-level raising of pigs. Perhaps you can find it in small farmers that you know but, in general, it doesn’t exist, especially in mass produced products.
Kathleen Johnson says
Thanks for the article! Knowing if a food product contains nitrates is important for my family because many of us suffer with migraines and nitrates are one of many migraine triggers. I try to eat as naturally as possible, which means that I very rarely purchase processed foods. On rare occasions I do enjoy hot dogs or some other form of processed meat but it is very rare ( maybe once or twice a year, if that) but I pay for that indulgence If I would have seen the label above I would have snatched them up since my kids like hot dogs and would have been responsible for providing them (and myself) a migraine triggering food.
Thank you for this article! It’s really a challenge figuring out what’s bad for you and what’s good. Sometimes, I find myself tearing my hair out because it almost seems impossible. Take this issue with nitrites for example. Where I live, though, it’s really hard to find grass-fed and pasture-raised meat, so I tend to just forgo them altogether. Much less stress for me. 🙂
Jamie Brower says
Are there any safe and natural turkey summer sausages?
Magee Matthews says
Wow, this was a really informative article. I had no idea about all of this, I was told by a nutritionist that nitrates were bad, and I thought they were only in procressed meats. I have been putting celery seeds on many of my dishes lately, now I wonder am I just adding nitrates?
Mindy Schleger says
So does this mean that the Medical Medium recommendation of daily morning celery juice is dangerous given high quantity in your opinion?