Ah nitrates. Those little cancer-causing hooligans are decimating our society at alarming rates! Or are they? Let’s talk about what nitrates really are.
First of all, let’s start with the “nitrate-free” movement. Several large-scale studies have come out during the past several years that have shown a correlation with consumption of processed meat and cancer, primarily stomach and colon cancers. However, as is my frustration with most campaigns that throw out blanket accusations on particular food or food types, the researchers seem to regularly and blatantly ignore confounding factors.
Confounding factors in research are things that are happening at the same time as the experiment to the same group of people being examined. In other words, if I were doing a trial on whether or not lunchmeat is going to cause cancer in my 100 (or 1000) sample subjects, I might also want to address the fact that 80% of my subjects also smoke cigarettes…or are sedentary…or eat their lunchmeat sandwiched between 2 cupcakes…or all of the above (I hope you get the idea here.) IF the subjects all develop colon cancer, can we attribute that link solely to the fact that they also were eating lunchmeat? Nope; but that is what a lot of these popular epidemiologic studies tend to promote.
Nonetheless, because these correlations linking processed meats with higher rates of cancer (regardless of confounding factors likely clouding reality), packages of meats claiming “nitrate-free” started cropping up in grocery stores everywhere. The funny thing is, most people who are super proud to declare that their hot dogs are “nitrate free” don’t have even the slightest idea what the hell nitrates are. So, what are nitrates?
Nitrates are compounds consisting of nitrogen and oxygen bonded together. NitrATE is one nitrogen bonded with two oxygen molecules; nitrITE is one nitrogen bonded with three oxygen molecules. Nitrates are quite abundant in some of our healthiest foods, such as beets, celery, and spinach for example. Nitrate is converted to nitrite starting with action in our saliva (aka spit) and finished off in our stomach. Now, the fate of nitrite rests in our lifestyle choices. Nitrite in our tummies can either go on to become nitric oxide, which has wonderful effects on our blood pressure, artery health, and athletic performance (to name only a few great things). Nitrite can also go on to become nitrous oxide, which can combine with something called amines to form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are carcinogenic (cancer-causing), and they are what caused the pandemonium and defiance against that killer ham sandwich.
Now that you have the basic idea of what the deal is with nitrates, I suppose you’re wondering what determines whether nitrite follows the yellow brick road toward nitric oxide versus nitrous oxide? How do we keep our food doing good instead of evil? Well, the key is in all the other stuff we are eating. Many studies have found that if we have adequate vitamin C and other antioxidants present at the scene in our stomachs when nitrite arrives, we will most likely produce nitric oxide (remember, that is the good one). Therefore, most of the cases of higher rates of stomach or colon cancer with higher intakes of processed meat might have involved people who at few (or no) vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc.
Furthermore, something you may be totally unaware of is that the sodium nitrite found in many lunchmeats is there for a reason. Sodium nitrite keeps some really nasty bacteria (like clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism) from growing on your ham and turkey. It also keeps your meat a nice pinkish color instead of putrid gray. If you’re wondering why your nitrate-free ham is not gray, it’s because it’s not actually nitrate-free. “Nitrate-free” means that because we all freaked out and stopped buying meat preserved with sodium nitrite, the manufacturers started using celery powder as a stand-in. Remember, many awesome vegetables are really high in nitrates, hence the celery. Because they simply added celery powder, and they didn’t overtly add sodium nitrite, they can claim “nitrate-free.” They call that the ol’ bait-and-switch!
Whatever shall we do? Well, you gotta be real here and understand that a “nitrate-free” hot dog is still a hot dog. I hope I don’t have to explain why that [a hot dog] isn’t an example of health. The healthiest diet is rich in vibrant, colorful whole vegetables and whole fruits. If you are trying the best you can to have real, wholesome foods, that is the key to good health. Although I’m certainly not an “anti-lunchmeat” activist, I wouldn’t say it’s the first thing I picture when I hear the word “wholesome.” Real food means food that is as close to nature as it gets. An apple is plucked from a tree; a beet is pulled from the ground. Things that didn’t have to go through a factory and didn’t have anything added to them are what makes our bodies thrive.
Try the best you can to eat more vegetables and fruit than anything else, and your occasional roast beef sandwich or bacon doesn’t have to give you cancer.
xoxo – Casey