Why Are Nitrates Added to Bacon? A Closer Look at This Controversial Curing Agent

Walk down the meat aisle at any grocery store and you’ll see package after package of bacon touting they are “nitrate-free.” Reading this, you’d assume nitrates are something bad that should be avoided. But are nitrates really harmful, and why are they used in bacon in the first place? Let’s take a closer look at the reasons behind this common bacon ingredient.

What Exactly Are Nitrates?

First, a chemistry refresher. Nitrates and nitrites are compounds made up of nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrates (NO3) can convert to nitrites (NO2) through a natural process called nitrate reduction. This conversion happens readily in our bodies and in the environment.

Nitrates occur naturally in vegetables, especially leafy greens like spinach, arugula and celery. They are also commonly used as a preservative and color fixer in processed meats like hot dogs, deli meats and bacon. It is this latter use that has caused controversy around their health effects.

The Role of Nitrates in Curing Bacon

There are a few reasons bacon producers use nitrates during the curing process:

  • Preservation – Nitrates help prevent the growth of harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses. So they act as a preservative to extend the shelf life and ensure the safety of cured meats.

  • Color – Nitrates interact with the meat pigment myoglobin to give cured meats like bacon their characteristic pink hue. Without them bacon would look unappealing grayish-brown.

  • Flavor – Studies show nitrates influence the development of aroma compounds and some characteristic bacon flavor components during curing.

Simply put, without added nitrates, bacon would spoil quickly, look unappealing, and lack the beloved bacon flavor profile we know.

Origins of Using Saltpeter in Curing

The use of nitrates in curing meats dates back thousands of years. Our ancestors didn’t understand the chemistry, but through generations of tradition discovered saltpeter gave meat desirable qualities.

Saltpeter is the colloquial name for potassium nitrate, a naturally occurring mineral high in nitrates first used in gunpowder and fertilizer. People learned that rubbing saltpeter on meat preserved it.

We now know this is because bacteria convert nitrates to nitrites Nitrites interact with meat proteins to inhibit bacteria growth Saltpeter’s preservative power was a boon before refrigeration when meat spoiled quickly,

From Saltpeter to Sodium Nitrate

Early meat curers used saltpeter from natural sources like caves or manure deposits. But in the 20th century, the meatpacking industry shifted to purified, processed sodium nitrate to standardize curing.

Sodium nitrate performed the same stabilization and coloring as saltpeter. When mixed with salt and sugar, sodium nitrate became the predominant curing agent for hams, hot dogs and bacon.

This commercial nitrate was much more concentrated than saltpeter, allowing faster curing. But some feared this higher level of nitrates could be toxic.

Health Concerns Around Nitrates in Meats

In the 1970s, several studies suggested a link between cured meats, nitrates and cancer. This concerned consumers and led to a search for alternatives.

While the cancer risk from nitrates is still debated, we know our bodies convert nitrates to nitrites. Nitrites can then form nitrosamines, compounds shown to be carcinogenic in studies using high levels not normally found in cured meats.

Fears around nitrite and cancer led the meat industry to implement changes. While nitrates are still allowed, new processing methods reduce residual nitrite levels in finished products. The use of antioxidants like vitamin C also minimizes nitrosamine formation.

Modern research indicates nitrates themselves are likely not carcinogenic at typical intake levels. But some health professionals still recommend limiting consumption of processed meats high in nitrates and nitrites.

The Rise of Nitrate-Free Bacon

In response to health concerns, many bacon manufacturers now offer product lines advertised as “no nitrates or nitrites added.” This appeals to consumers looking for more natural or organic options.

However, the term “no nitrates” on bacon is misleading. These products replace sodium nitrate with celery powder, which is naturally high in nitrate. So nitrate is still present, just from a vegetable source.

Celery powder has the same curing effect as purified sodium nitrate. The main difference is it contains vitamin C. This is added to inhibit nitrosamine formation but doesn’t eliminate nitrates.

So-called nitrate-free bacon also often contains nitrites. Even without direct addition, nitrites form when bacteria convert vegetable nitrates during curing. The labeling distinction reflects consumer perception, not an actual nitrite-free product.

Making Bacon Without Nitrates

To make bacon without any nitrates or nitrites, alternative preservation methods are required. This artisanal-style bacon relies on ingredients like salt, sugar and vinegar for stabilization.

However, uncured bacon has a much shorter shelf life – just weeks compared to months for conventionally cured options. It also requires refrigeration and careful handling to avoid bacterial growth.

Without nitrates, naturally cured bacon lacks the characteristic pink color. It tends to be darker with a more inconsistent appearance that some consumers find unappealing. The iconic bacon flavor also differs without nitrates.

So while possible to make nitrate-free bacon, it requires special processing under strict conditions with limited shelf life. This is not practical for major commercial manufacturers, making artisanal uncured bacon costlier and harder to find.

How Much Nitrate is in Bacon?

The actual level of nitrates in most bacon is relatively low compared to other dietary sources. For example:

  • 2 slices of bacon contain around 0.3 – 0.5 mg nitrate

  • 1 ounce of spinach contains over 60 mg nitrate

  • 1 cup of arugula contains 130 mg nitrate

So while bacon contains some nitrates, vegetables contribute far more to our daily nitrate intake. moderation, bacon nitrates are not a major health concern.

The Takeaway on Bacon and Nitrates

The curing agents provide characteristic flavor, stability and color that define our expectation of bacon. Without them, bacon would be a very different product.

While recent research indicates bacon nitrates themselves likely don’t cause cancer in typical servings, concerns exist about converted compounds. The preservatives certainly have some negative health impacts when over-consumed.

But as part of a balanced diet, bacon in moderation is acceptable for most people. When buying bacon, look for minimally processed options without excess chemical additives.

Understanding the reasons behind ingredients like nitrates allows us to make informed choices balancing risk, benefits and enjoyment of favorite foods like bacon. A little knowledge about the science behind curing helps put bacon nitrates into perspective.

Enjoy Your BACON! The Nitrate/Nitrite Cancer Scare Destroyed!

Should you add nitrates to Bacon?

Despite the potential health risks associated with consuming too many nitrates, there are some benefits to adding them to bacon. Nitrates and nitrites help to preserve the meat and prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, which is especially important in processed meats like bacon.

Does Bacon have nitrite?

Unfortunately, bacon cured with salt and celery juice will react with saliva to form nitrite, which in turn becomes harmful nitrosamines. In fact, WebMD states that bacon packages labeled “nitrite-free” were tested to have more than double the amount of nitrates as regular bacon.

Are bacon nitrates bad for You?

The dangers of processed meats like bacon come from added nitrates found in very high concentrations. Nitrates, as an additive and preservative, provide a lot of utility because they preserve vibrant colors in many processed meats and extend the expiration date of foods. They can, however, also introduce some health risks.

What meats have nitrates?

Cured or processed meats — bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and ham, as well as deli meats such as chicken, turkey, roast beef, and salami — often contain added nitrates and nitrites. These compounds prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, add a salty flavor, and make the meat appear red or pink.

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