It’s a fact: heavily-processed, cured and grilled/blackened meats cause cancer. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, in 2015, classified processed meat (think: hot dogs, pepperoni, salami, bologna, chicken nuggets, bacon) as a group 1 carcinogen, meaning that it definitively causes cancer.
Red meat is classified as a group 2 carcinogen, which denotes that it probably causes cancer.
Cured meats like bacon are processed with salt and sugar. These two additives themselves contribute to metabolic diseases. But it’s a third component of cured meats that’s the most troubling: nitrites and nitrates.
(Nitrates are compounds that can convert into nitrites; for the purpose of this article, the focus will be centered around nitrites).
Nitrites prevent meat from going bad. The compound not only preserves the flavor of the meat but also the color. Nitrites are the reason a package of bacon can stay reddish-pink for several days if not weeks.
According to University of Minnesota researcher Robert Turesky, nitrite-cured meat produces carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds (NOCs). Throw a nitrite-filled hot dog on the grill and you get a double dose of carcinogens thanks to the smoking that produces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Most meat is usually cooked at very high temperatures, which in itself causes a third source of cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs).
Nitrite-Free Meat: A Healthier Alternative?
Clearly, if you want to enjoy a piece of sausage or bacon every once in a while, the safe alternative is to eat meat with no nitrites/nitrates added, right?
Well, hold the nitrite-free bacon. That’s because if you look at the fine print on the label of any brand of natural meat, there’s a slick disclaimer.
And it’s not only brands that are associated with factory-farmed meat (example: Purdue) that’s guilty of this deception that’s explained below. Brands like Applegate Farms, which are associated with healthier, more humane meat also use this clever trick.
So what’s the cured meat con?
The disclaimer under the prominent label descriptor “NO ADDED NITRITES OR NITRATES” reads: “Except for those naturally-occurring in celery and sea salt.”
(If you’ve hopped on the celery juice bandwagon, there’s no reason to worry because fresh celery juice does not contain cancer-causing nitrites.)
The problem is that naturally-occurring nitrites are just as bad for your health as synthetic nitrites added to cured meats. When nitrites from celery powder—a bacterial culture is added to the celery to extract the nitrites—is exposed to high heat, the flame doesn’t distinguish good nitrites from bad nitrites. Just like stress is stress, nitrites are nitrites.
Think of it this way: when you engage in intense physical activity, especially for a very long time, your body doesn’t distinguish good stress from bad stress. Rather, your body releases stress hormones like adrenaline to fuel your workout. Engaging in highly taxing exercise every day may be harmful to health.
And when you cook no-nitrites-added meat, the naturally-occurring nitrites from celery juice and/or sea salt create carcinogenic compounds.
Is There A Connection Between Cured Meats and Covid?
According to Dr. Michael Gregor, processed meat intake has been associated with an increased risk of lung cancer, a decline in lung function, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.
The SARS-COv-2 virus that causes the disease COVID-19 notoriously attacks the lungs. Could it be that heavy cured meat consumption can contribute to severe COVID-19? No studies have analyzed this as of yet—but it’s food for thought.
If there is a connection, it’s troubling to think that the pandemic witnessed a surge of deli meat consumption and other cured meats, as more people were eating at home.
Let The Meat Buyer Beware!
In 2019, Consumer Reports and the Center for Science in the Public Interest submitted a petition to the US Department of Agriculture, requesting the agency put a stop to the misleading terms that give consumers the false impression that “uncured”, “no nitrite or nitrate added” products are healthier.
Synthetic-free nitrites from celery and other natural sources have been used by food manufacturers since the 1990s. Food manufacturers are still getting away with the “uncured” and “no nitrite added” label—for now. That, however, is not the case in the European Union, which outlawed the deceptive labelling practice. Time will only tell if the USDA will follow suit.