The original purpose stems from the early 1900s when each of these salts were used to standardize curing – both in the amount needed to cure and in achieving the desired results. In the original research, sodium nitrite was also found to help prevent botulism.
Botulism is a type of poisoning that happens when the microorganism Clostridium botulinum creates the protein botulin. Botulin invades the body where nerve cells meet muscle fibers and then prevent signals from passing through, resulting in paralysis. Heating the food kills the protein and prevents the poisoning from occurring, but consuming cured meat was common in this era as heat sources were not always available.
In addition to preventing the growth of these harmful microorganisms, sodium nitrite was also found to help preserve the color of meat and even prevent the meat from going rancid over longer periods of time.
Imagine a horse and buggy traveling across the country, killing animals as needed for food. Not all the meat could be consumed at one time and refrigeration wasn’t available. Sodium nitrite was used to cure and preserve the meat. The meat stayed red or pink and would be edible without causing sickness for days, possibly weeks.
At the surface level, sodium nitrite seemed to be a miracle preservative. Even today, it is sold as a food additive, although it is dyed bright pink to prevent consumers mistaking it for salt.
Is there concern for mistaking sodium nitrite for salt? Given that sodium nitrite is toxic in large quantities, yes. Research indicates that the toxic level of sodium nitrite for a 143lb person is 71 mg/kg… meaning consumption of this amount would result in death.
However, sodium nitrite occurs naturally in most of the vegetables we consume. For example, curly kale has been clocked in at 302 mg/kg and green cauliflower at 61 mg/kg. Most vegetables fall somewhere between 1.1 and 57 mg/kg.
Does this mean we can die from consuming large amounts of fresh vegetables?
No. The concern for poisoning from nitrites is not a concern in regards to vegetables. In fact, our bodies produce sodium nitrite in the digestive process. Vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals that inhibit the production of nitrosamines, the carcinogenic chemical that sodium nitrite creates when it is charred or overcooked.
Wait a second? Charring or overcooking meat – meat that contains sodium nitrate (or nitrite) – creates a chemical that is directly involved in causing cancer?
So then what about my hot dogs tonight? What will happen to my body if they’re slightly charred? Will my DNA be damaged? Will my cells break down? Will I develop Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or colon cancer?
Maybe. Maybe not.
All meats that contain nitrates (added for curing or preserving) also contain ascorbic acid, a form of Vitamin C, as required by the USDA. Some manufacturers play it extra safe and add alpha-tocopherol (a form of Vitamin E and an antioxidant). Both of these inhibit the formation of nitrosamines and the levels of this carcinogenic chemical are significantly lower than what they were in the 1970’s, when the USDA realized that nitrates could be harmful.
So if the nitrates in meat have been negated with added vitamins, then why are manufacturers making “nitrate-free” or “no added nitrates” meat?
Because we as a society have been scared into believing that all nitrates are bad.
But that’s not true. Remember that almost all vegetables contain some level of nitrates – especially green vegetables (spinach, lettuce, celery, etc.) – and we’re told to eat as much of these as we can because of the benefits they offer.
As people conscious of our health and trying to improve on what we eat, we should be concerned about the amount of nitrates we consume. It is certain that consuming excessive amounts of processed food is bad for our health. Did we not learn this lesson from the documentary “Super Size Me?” Bacon, hot dogs and lunch meat are indeed processed meats and they must be consumed in moderation.