Processed Meats: Why (and How) to Avoid the Additives They Contain
Nowadays, a visit to the deli section promises a smorgasbord for the eyes (and stomach).
Long glass counters proudly boast a wide range of culinary delicacies – cured and fermented meats, cheeses, antipasto ingredients, salads and more.
With your shopping list firmly in hand, you carefully peruse the meats.
Pork, beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish and more. And would you like that cured, fermented, smoked or salted?
Once you’ve decided on the type of meat, you’ll be asked whether you prefer your meat sliced thickly or thinly, or shaved.
And would you like anything else? Perhaps a few slices of smiley fritz for your toddler in the trolley, or an impressive string of mettwurst?
You’re literally spoilt for choice.
But despite these impressive offerings, you may have a few niggling concerns about processed meats.
What additives are used to ensure these meats have a long shelf life? What’s the trade-off for the convenience of cold meats? And why is the silverside such a luminous magenta colour?
These are valuable questions to ask.
And it’s possible the answers you discover lead you to spending a little less time waiting at the deli counter in future.
Let’s take a look at this together.
What is Processed Meat?
Despite it’s global popularity, the term ‘processed meat’ doesn’t have a clear definition.
Instead, ‘processed meat’ is more of a description. It’s generally considered to be “any meat which has been modified in order to either improve its taste, or to extend its shelf life. Methods of meat processing include salting, curing, fermentation, and smoking”. (source)
Processed meats can either be purchased cooked and ready-to-eat (such as ham or salami), or may require cooking at home (such as bacon or frankfurters).
Some meats can fit into both camps. An example is Corned Beef (Silverside), which can be found pre-cooked and sliced in the deli, or bagged in a brine ready for cooking at home.
For a comprehensive list of different types of processed meats, see here.
What are the Additives used in Processed Meats?
Contrary to what you may think, additives aren’t used just to make the ingredients list look impressively long.
There are some legitimate (and also questionable) reasons for their use.
Food manufacturers use artificial additives to prevent food poisoning, make foods look more visually appealing, enhance the flavour and/or aroma of food, and to extend a food’s storage life. (source)
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of attention on two specific additives used in processed meats – nitrates and nitrites.
As a result of this media focus, there are two polarized groups of shoppers – those who advise to avoid these additives at all cost, and those who claim these foods aren’t harmful (as they reach for another ham sandwich).
So, how do you decide which is right?
There’s no simple answer to this controversial topic, so we’ll do our best to give you some facts so you can decide what’s best for you and your family.
What are Artificial Nitrates and Nitrites?
Both nitrates and nitrites are naturally occurring chemical compounds found in soil, water, and plants.
So why the concern when they show up in our processed meat?
To answer this, it’s helpful to understand what they are, what their purpose is, whether they’re natural or man-made, and what foods they’re found in.
According to Tiff, from Don’t Waste the Crumbs,
- Sodium nitrate is a type of salt, naturally found in Chile and Peru. It can also be created in a lab.
- Sodium nitrite is also a type of salt, but is not found naturally and is created in a lab or as a by-product of two other chemical reactions (i.e. when sodium nitrate is added to food and reacts with existing chemicals).
Nitrates are essential plant nutrients found in the soil, water and air. Plants need nitrogen to grow well, and nitrates are their primary source. Because the soil is full of nitrates, any plants that grow from the ground will obviously draw nitrates from the soil. (source)
It’s important to realise that nitrates, by themselves, aren’t a problem.
In fact, not only are they harmless, they provide many health benefits. These include lowering blood pressure, relaxing blood vessels and relieving chest pain.
It’s little wonder, then, that after consuming foods with naturally-occurring nitrates, our bodies create these essential nitrites on their own to help keep us fit and well. (source)
Why are Artificial Nitrates and Nitrites used in Processed Meats?
Over 100 years ago it was discovered that meat could be cured safely by using synthetic forms of nitrates and nitrites. In particular, the addition of these substances prevented the growth of harmful bacteria and prevented fat from going rancid.
And perhaps more importantly from a consumer’s point of view, these additives help preserve the colour of meat.
You’ll know immediately if sodium nitrate has been added because most meats remain pink or red, even though they are cooked during processing.
Because, after all, we do ‘eat with our eyes’. And grey-coloured meat isn’t as visually appealing as meat that has a ‘healthier’ pinkish glow.
As a result of this discovery and advancements in food science, there are now two sources of nitrates and nitrites used in the food supply: synthetic and natural.
- Synthetic curing salt is produced in a lab. It’s dyed pink to differentiate it from table salt, and to help it blend better with meat.
- Non-synthetic versions are extracted from natural sources (like celery, beetroot and leafy greens), and are used to make natural brines for preserving meat.
Why Avoid Artificial Nitrates and Nitrites?
So, if nitrates and nitrites are found in nature and contain antimicrobial properties, what then, is the problem with them?
Simply put, it’s what happens when nitrates are eaten, and how they interact with nitrites that is the real concern.
“Nitrites, under certain conditions, can produce carcinogenic chemical compounds called nitrosamines. These conditions include strong acidity – as in stomach acid, or cooking with high temperatures, for example, frying”. (source)
First Hand Foods explains it like this … “the stuff that’s actually bad for you is nitrosamine”.
And nitrosamines are recognised as carcinogenic (cancer-promoting) chemicals. (source)
What about Natural Forms?
But what about the large amounts of naturally-occurring nitrates found in fruits, vegies and grains?
Aren’t they also converted to nitrosamines?
Well, technically yes. But it’s much less of a concern.
Thankfully, when we consume these foods, the production of nitrosamines is much less and is largely kept in check. This is because the nitrates from whole foods:
- Exist in the perfect ratio
- Exist alongside antioxidants that inhibit the production of nitrosamines in the body.
So even though our bodies do produce sodium nitrite in the digestive process after eating nitrates found in whole foods, there is good news.
The vitamin C (an antioxidant, also known as ascorbic acid) extracted from these foods we’re eating naturally inhibits the conversion to nitrosamines.
This is why fresh fruits and vegies high in nitrates cause far fewer problems than meats artificially high in nitrates. (source)
But Isn’t This Hype a Little Extreme?
We can relate ….. actually it’s our children who voice these thoughts!
They occasionally challenge our decision to limit the amount of processed meat we eat. They wish their food-police parents would ‘lighten up’. And so begins an animated conversation about food choices and the best way to nourish our bodies
Ultimately, it’s our wish to provide the best foods for us and our family possible. And choosing to limit our consumption of commercially processed meats is just one way we’re doing this.
As their continually-learning parents, we’re encouraged to know that we’re not the only ones making these choices to avoid artificial additives.
Further afield, Dr. Axe wrote this article detailing all you need to know about nitrates and nitrites. And there are many more in this same vein.
So, What’s the Solution?
We know it’s a lot to take in.
We’ve been on this journey for over 10 years, and we’re still learning (and occasionally making less-than-desirable choices).
So, knowing all this information, what are we to do?
- Where possible, we recommend only eating cured meats that are naturally preserved using celery or beetroot powders. While this avoids artificial additives, naturally-occurring nitrates are still present in these vegie powders. But this form is safe to eat.
- Try to reduce the amount of processed meats you eat – making them a very ‘occasional’ food. Instead, try opting for fresh or frozen unprocessed meat that you season and cook yourself.
- We don’t suggest using the cooking liquid from a commercially purchased corned beef roast, bacon bones or a bacon hock. An easy substitution is homemade broth made from beef, lamb, chicken or vegies. The flavour will be different, but you won’t be eating questionable additives.
- And if you really can’t live without bacon or ham, this suggestion from Naturally Savvy will go a long way in protecting your health “The antioxidants ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C, as well as vitamin E have been proven to inhibit the conversion of sodium nitrite to nitrosamines. If you choose to eat cold cuts or bacon, protect yourself by taking 500 to 1,000 mg of vitamin C and 200 IU of vitamin E before your meal”.
And yes, we still find it difficult to turn down the offer of a crispy piece bacon while eating with friends 😉
What about you? We’d love to hear whether or not you choose to reduce the amount of processed meats you eat, and how you’re finding the journey.