The health concerns centred around bacon are linked to the preservatives used to maintain it’s salty freshness. But should we really worry?
A number of preservatives are used in processed meats to maintain freshness and add flavour and colour. The most prevalent preservative is sodium nitrite, but sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate are also frequently used (E numbers 250-252). These are ubiquitous ingredients in bacon, ham, sausages, and canned meat products. Click here for more infromation on nitrites and nitrates.
So what’s the problem?
Preservatives in meats have sparked debate over the decades once we first found out in the 1950s that nitrosamines could be formed from their ingestion. Nitrosamines are known to elevate risk of gastric cancer, colon cancer and pancreatic cancer. Sodium nitrates can be converted to nitrosamines from charring or overcooking, through the action of certain digestive processes, or even during the curing process itself. Sounds worrying, but here’s the exoneration: it was conclusively found in the 1970s that certain antioxidants such as vitamin C and E inhibit formation of nitrosamines. As a result manufacturers are required by law to add these to cured foods containing the above mentioned preservatives. Before the levels of nitrites in meat products were controlled and before it was known that vitamin C inhibited nitrosamine formation, a significant change in US meat curing practices that took place in 1920s America resulted in a 69% decrease in average nitrite content, which preceded the beginning of a dramatic decline in gastric cancer mortality. This highlighted the need for extensive testing on food additives before their commercial use, and is why today all new additives are tested thoroughly before being given the green light.
If you’re still thinking of avoiding such preservatives it is also worth bearing in mind that nitrates, and to a lesser extent nitrites are found in not insignificant quantities in nearly all fruits and vegetables as well as in tap water in certain areas. The natural antioxidants alongside such chemicals (such as vitamin C) in fruits and vegetables are thought to be in sufficient quantity to negate the possible negative effects when eating them.
So long as nitrites in food are in suitably small quantities well below their LD50 (which they are by law), and accompanied by vitamin C or a similar compound (which they are by law), then there logically doesn’t seem to be anything wrong. See how the law works? Collective evidence suggests that nitrites and nitrates are generally safe. Whilst you can stop worrying so much about preservatives, meat quality is a different kettle of fish. Unless you’re shelling out for a traditionally made jamón ibérico the likelihood is that your ham is reconstituted from as many meat containing parts of the pig as are humanly possible to extract. It’s generally not a good idea to eat cheap, poor quality meat as the animals used in its production are fed a poor diet and have nutritionally inferior quality meat as a result, not to mention potential for hormones fed to cheaply fatten animals to find their way into the meat, the potential for bacterial contamination, as well as the obvious animal welfare issues this all conjures up. This is why I would recommend eating high quality, organic, unprocessed food wherever possible and when your budget allows it. If nothing else this is to err on the side of caution, should new evidence emerge condemning sodium nitrites and other preservatives, and so you avoid the potential dangers of mass-produced meat. Some observational studies have shown a relationship between certain cancers and disease and processed meat consumption. Such studies famous for their fallibility and as such should be treated with skepticism, as by their very definition they cannot draw conclusions, and can simply show associations. For this reason, we essentially do not yet know if cancer risk truly is elevated from eating cured, processed meats, but equally we have not been able to disprove a potential link. Everyone must decide for themselves as to whether or not they would like to eat products containing these preservatives, and if so, in what quantity. It could be that you have no need to worry, but until we know for sure, it may be better to err on the side of caution and not eat too many of these foods. If you’re thinking of cutting back on your bacon addiction, do so knowing that it may well be in vain.
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