no-nitrite bacon

Trader Joe's "uncured" bacon/Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

During a recent phone call with the excellent Elise of simplyrecipes, Elise wished aloud that I would address the nitrite issue directly.  “Trader Joe’s carries it!  Go look.  Is there one near you?”

Indeed there is, and indeed they sell at least two products pitching themselves as a “healthier” bacon because they don’t add sodium nitrite. This is as odious as those sugar laden granola bars trumpeting “No Fat!” on their label—food marketers preying on a confused consumer who has been taught to fear food because of harmful additives (such as the recent, apparently genuine, Red Dye 40 warnings).

Full disclosure if you don’t already know: I am a vocal bacon advocate, and one of my books, Charcuterie, relies on sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate for many of its recipes to cure foods such as bacon, ham and salami, so take all this with, um … no, I’m too pissed off to pun.

Please, if someone can tell me what is wrong with nitrates (in green vegetables) and nitrites (in curing salts and in our bodies, a powerful antimicrobial agent in our saliva, for instance), I invite them to do so here.  In the 70’s there were studies finding that at high temps, they could form nitrosamines, cancer causing compounds.  I don’t disagree, but burnt things containing nitrite are bitter and unpleasant so we’re not likely to crave them in harmful quatities.

Aspirin is not bad for you, right? Helps with a morning head and achy joints. It’s even taken for its heart benefits. But eat enough of it and it’s toxic.

The fact is, most nitrate we consume comes from vegetables. Nitrate we consume coverts to nitrite in our body, which is a anti-microbial agent in our guts. Sodium nitrite in bacon cures the bacon (more info in my safety concerns for charcutepaloozians) and then converts to nitric oxide, so, while I’m not chemist, I have heard others suggest that you’re not actually consuming any nitrite by the time the bacon gets to you.  Again, almost all the nitrate and nitrite in your body comes from veggies.  It’s an anti-oxidant.  Studies are coming out now saying it’s good for the heart.

A study in the Journal of Food Protection put it this way: “Since 93% of ingested nitrite comes from normal metabolic sources, if nitrite caused cancers or was a reproductive toxicant, it would imply that humans have a major design flaw.”

Bacon is one of the greatest foods on the planet, but the food marketers are going to figure out a way to make you buy their bacon.  So what they do is use celery powder and celery juice (note the asterisk on the label above) as their nitrate source (celery is loaded with nitrate) and are therefore are allowed to say no nitrites added.  Why go to the trouble? Because we don’t know any better.  Can we really be this stupid?  I have only one word to say on this beyond an emphatic yes.

Snackwells.  (Healthy snack?  Must be!  Says so right on the package! Da der, da der, da der, down the aisle we go.)

More than a few scientists and physicians read this blog. I’m neither, so I invite anyone qualified to give me evidence that the sodium nitrite added to food in appropriate quantities (which we’ve been doing for millennia) is truly harmful.  Please, I want to know.  Until then, I’ll hang with the AMA on their nitrites stance: “given the current FDA and USDA regulations on the use of nitrites, the risk of developing cancer as a result of consumption of nitrites-containing food is negligible.”

Don’t be stupid. Don’t let food marketers trick you.  Eat natural, minimally processed foods.  Eat a balanced diet.  Cook it for yourself and the people you care about. Enjoy a little fat. Salt your own fresh food yourself.

But whatever you do, stay away from too much celery.  That stuff’ll kill ya.

Callout Comment: Elise Bauer responds: “The thing that irks me is the “no added nitrites or nitrates” as if the fact that they’re adding celery powder means nothing.  Or “uncured” even though they are obviously “curing” with celery powder.  It is false, misleading, and playing off of people’s food fears to market their cured product that is loaded with nitrates.  When I saw a bright pink slab of corned beef for sale at TJ’s, marketed as “uncured” I knew there was a problem.”

Hear, hear.

If you liked this post on nitrites, check out these other links:

© 2011 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2011 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved


164 Wonderful responses to “The “No Nitrites Added” Hoax”

  • Matthew Kayahara

    I saw a similar claim recently that drove me up the wall: some dry-cured sausages at a local butcher with a sign that said “Contains no nitrates!” Ingredient list: Pork, salt, sodium nitrite.

  • Richard

    Thank you for devoting a blog entry to this. Another reason not to use celery juice as a curing agent is the level of nitrates in celery juice is not consistent. That inconsistency can cause greater problems (including botulism poisoning) with obtaining a proper cure than the minuscule chance that you will get cancer.

  • Yao

    I am a biochemist. This is not directly related to your post on nitrites, but I just wanted to point out that humans do have major design flaws in terms of metabolism. Without getting into too much detail: humans, out of all mammals, have recently (in evolutionary history) lost the ability to produce a certain sugar group – our main source of this sugar is now through meat consumption (in short, a mutation in the human genome inactivated our enzyme). Remarkably, this is one of the few (or only) cases where a sugar is directly taken up and added to our proteins without being metabolically modified. The problem is that this sugar group, upon addition to the proteins, triggers a host of bad effects such as inflammation and autoimmune responses. And yet, our body preferentially uses it over related but non-harmful sugar groups made in our body. The moral of the story is the human body can be pretty darn stupid, so never discount that. I don’t have enough information to comment on the nitrite debate, but the JFP article on nitrites is just circular logic.

    • Marisa

      Thanks for your comment. At the end you say that the article quoted above nothing but circular logic. Did you read the article, or are you just referring to the quote? (I’m wondering if I should bother checking it out.) Thanks!

    • Rob

      Then why say anything you nitwit. This is pure drivel, first of all you don’t quote any sources but claim you are a bio-chemist. Could you even provide the NAME of this supposed “Sugar-Group”? Good grief, your comment added NOTHING. “Blah, de blah, de blah I’m a biochemist everyone believe my opinion, blah, de blah, de blah. The human body is dumb.” The human body is pretty damn awesome, opposable thumbs AND intelligence…..assuming of course you arn’t.

      Rhulman, you’re the best! I have made over 200 lbs of bacon this last winter thanks to your book. Can’t wait to see what you do next. Nitrites awaaaayyyyyyy!!!!!

        • SleepyD

          +1. Apparently he missed the part about “without going in to too much detail”. Maybe he needs to back off on the salt a bit? ; )

  • Anna

    Thank you so much for this post–I worry about a food culture in which people turn to labels to tell them what’s “healthy” or “safe” as a substitute for actually understanding the food we put into our bodies. I hope that someday we will be able to move away from food-related “boogeymans” like nitrates.

    Plus, supermarket bacon tastes gross.

  • Stella

    Ahhh!!! This frustrates me to no end as well. I have the misfortune of being allergic to pork (diagnosed only a few years ago, so I totally know what I’m missing). But often, when someone hears this, they tell me, “Oh, you know, it’s probably the nitrites/nitrates. You should try a brand that doesn’t have those.” Gotta love that colloquial medical advice! I’m not allergic to nirites, I’m allergic to pork’s 65-kDa protein. Sigh.

    • ruhlman

      thanks for being so specific about what you’re allergic too! I’ve always wondered how someone could be alergic to a certain kind of meat.

    • cpt awkward

      i am literally shedding a tear for you right now :'(

  • chrisp

    I would love to know the ultimate answer here. I have a local berkshire pork farmer who cures with nitrates and my wife will not buy the bacon, so we end up buying TJoe’s nitrate free, which is so salty it is nearly inedible…please someone, someone, give us the right answer!

    • Grant

      Ruhlman just did. His arguments are pretty thoroughly supported. Do some research, be informed.

      If your wife eats spinach or celery, she’s eating nitrates. If she eats anything that has been fertilized, she’s probably eating something treated with nitrates.

      The same folks who tell you nitrates are evil are the folks who will tell you that nobody should eat products containing gluten. Thing is, the gluten argument actually carries more weight, because at least some folks have celiac’s disease or gluten allergies…

    • BG

      Stop buying the “other” stuff, just get the great bacon locally made the old fashioned way, didn’t you read the article, sorry it’s never fun to tell your wife she’s wrong, but she is.

  • smg

    I am planning to make my own baby food, and I have been advised not to make anything with carrots, spinach, or a few other vegetables because of nitrates, which can be harmful to an infant. Apparently, commercially-made baby food with those veggies are tested and below a certain level.

    • carrie

      I did things with carrots mixed with other foods for my babies–potatoes, turnips, etc.–and they’re still alive and healthy toddlers. They also ate potatoes mixed with pureed chard and also spinach. I didn’t give it to them until they were 9 months old though. Not sure if that helps. This is all so confusing. My pediatrician, pretty progressive, said it was ok.

    • BG

      Wrong, whoever told you that was passing on more mis information. All baby food, whether organic or conventional, that is made commercially and sold in stores, even fancy ones, has tons of carrot and spinach in it. They may say they test it, but the levels at which babies eat carrot would negate any low level of nitrate/ite in the produce. Not to mention most babies turn orange from eating so much carrot, since it’s in all veg, meat, and even dessert ones.

      • smg

        The advice came from my pediatrician, so I am not as quick to discard it as you are. Further, this is a quote directly from the linked article, which seems to confirm what my pediatrician said: “There seems to be little or no risk of nitrate poisoning from commercially prepared infant foods in the United States. However, reports of nitrate poisoning from home-prepared vegetable foods for infants continue to occur.”

        • Cindy

          Sadly, pediatricians are just as subject to fads as anyone else. We discovered this when ours said that what we observed couldn’t be true. We found the answer in Spock – his comment was written on the other end of the endless cycle of good/bad/good/bad……

        • BG

          The same doctors who tell you not to lay your infants on their stomach’s to sleep, when those tests were almost exclusively done in New Zealand where they have thick soft mattresses, stomach sleeping is no danger to infants on the brick hard beds they sleep on here in the US. I doubt if you are feeding your child some veggies in a balanced diet that they are going to get any poisoning, considering it’s been done for a very long time.

  • kate

    My nephew is on the ketogenic diet to control his epilepsy, and he had to cut out all nitrates/ites (so my sister drives great lengths to get *actual* uncured bacon from a butcher- the TJ’s stuff still causes seizures in my nephew). But mind you, they do not know why nitrates/ites can trigger seizures in those who respond positively to the keto diet.

    And I’m frustrated, because all of the ‘natural’ bacon brands have no added nitrates/ites, when really, all I want is humanely treated animals. The marketers target our own trumped up health concerns with no regard for the treatment of the animals. *sigh*

  • lisa laudato

    when i see a label on bacon that says it does not contain nitrates/nitrites i jump for joy. why?? they trigger my migraines. i went for years with out eating bacon and now i can thanks to companies like applewoods farms and trader joes.

    • Glenn

      Do you also not eat carrots, spinach, cabbage, etc? They have lots of nitrates. Ruhlman’s message above is that even though your “nitrate-free” bacon says so, if there is celery juice or celery powder in it, it does indeed contain nitrates — maybe more than regular bacon due to inconsistencies in dosing when using celery powder.

      Even Brian’s “nitrate-free” hot dogs; if they are pink and not gray, they are cured with nitrate/nitrite (vegetable sourced or pure) or laced with food coloring.

      Seems like some folks are missing this point, the main point of Ruhlman’s post.

    • BG

      Hard to believe it was from the nitrates/ites in bacon, because the Trader Joe’s brand DOES have them. Didn’t you read MR’s article? It explains that it is a LIE and it does in fact have them, the package even says that, right in the picture on top of this article. I doubt seriously that a substance vital to your survival would give you headaches. You do realize you get far more from your vegetables than the bacon?

    • ruhlman

      this is a good reason to make it, if it doesn’t affect you, but still I disagree that they should imply health benefits. Also, since it does say on the label that there are nitrates in it, which convert to nitrites, are you sure that’s what’s giving you migraines?

  • Brian

    This is anecdata, so consider it lightly.

    First up, I find that specifically nitrate-free hot dogs taste much better to me than regular ones. I think it has more to do with over-use of it as an additive (just how much does it need, anyway?) than whether or not it’s “bad” or “good”.

    Second, I have seen high levels of nitrates act as a “supersalt”, much like MSG does. For some people, it can trigger migraines, and it can also cause dehydration symptoms in people who are sensitive to it. No studies to cite, only individual cases that I am aware of.

    I, for one, glad that cured meats that are lower in nitrates and nitrites are available as an option.

    • Obo

      A point Ruhlman made is that “No nitrites added” does not mean “No nitrites,” rather, it means, “We used celery because it is high in nitrites so now we get the benefit of nitrites and are apple to claim in the ingredients we used celery and that we did not add any nitrites thereby exploiting of America’s ‘nutritionist’ culture for profit.”

      • Abbe

        Yes, this. Celery is an ingredient that has nitrites so there’s “no added nitrite” but “added celery juice” because of the way the labeling requirements go, and we are conditioned to think one is bad and the other is fine. (

    • Grant

      I actually really dig the uncured hot dogs I can pick up at Whole Foods. The wife and I get a few every couple months as a treat.

      That said, I don’t think it’s the lack of nitrates but the fact that they’re just not as highly salted as normal hot dogs. Most brands of hot dogs use salt to hide the fact that their products don’t taste very good…

    • BG

      I believe you are falling subject to the same mis information that this very article is dispelling. The MSG debate has been put to rest as well, there is NO evidence at all that a natural salt like MSG, derived from plants, affects anyone in any negative way. Every person I have encountered that claimed this was always claiming something after reading the internet or listening to some bumbling “health nut”.

      • nancy

        actually I DIScovered a problem with how my body reacts to msg by EATING msg WAAAAAY before anyone was talking, posting, blogging about it. Creates inflammation, bright red cheeks. Every time that happened, I tried to figure out WHAT did I eat? and every time it was something with msg.

      • kc

        I think you need to be very careful when trying to “disprove” the health afflictions of someone you don’t even know over an internet connection. My children and I are allergic to corn and we have to avoid many processed foods not because they list a corn derivative in the ingredient list, but because cornstarch and citric acid are the most popular manufacturing aids in the history of industrialization. Because they are used in the manufacturing process, it is not a requirement by the FDA that they be listed as ingredients. As you might be able to imagine, before we figured out there was hidden corn in many products, we were doomed to have reactions from all processed foods. Now that I understand about hidden corn, I can call the manufacturer and find out if there was any corn used in the products I am interested in buying. I don’t always get an honest or complete answer, but it is a starting point so that we were able to create a list (albeit a very small list) of corn-free processed foods from which we can choose.

        The natural bacons do not cause an allergic reaction but the conventional bacons containing sodium nitrate do every time. As far as I know, sodium nitrate is not made from corn (one of the very few food additives that isn’t), but corn is involved somewhere in the production of it. Therefore, comparing sodium nitrate to celery powder is like comparing chocolate soy milk (with its 18 ingredients) to organic raw milk straight from the cow. There is a difference and it has nothing to do with marketing claims or misinformation.

        BTW, apply this same wisdom I have provided for you to the MSG debate. Humans can be allergic to anything. How could you possibly think you have enough information to argue with someone about their level of sensitivity? MSG is usually made from GMO corn or soy using some pretty heinous manufacturing processed that most people would want to avoid if they knew anything about it.

      • Dee

        If you were a migraineur, you would not be so flippant about added MSG, nitrates/ites, etc. When those substances are included in food, even celery, many of us get a raging migraine that is difficult to end. It is the fact they are purposeful additives prepared to cure/enhance food. The way these additives are manufactured isn’t natural.

  • Obo

    I love Michael Pollan’s book about this, “In Defense of Food.” He contends that the American diet is one of “nutritionism” where we try to eat the right nutrients rather than the right food. Paradoxically, “nutritionism” has made Americans quite unhealthy. He goes into the causes in his book.

    My favorite part is his recommendation that we eat close to the Earth foods (As Ruhlman said, not too processed) and meals from traditional diets. A traditional mexican diet full of pork fat is far healthier than an American diet full of foods labeled as having this vitamin or not having this source of calorie.

    My other favorite part is his recommendation that we spend more time preparing our meals, eating our meals, and cleaning up our meals. So, don’t only embrace traditional diets, but embrace traditional cultures of eating. A 3 hour dinner with 4 properly sized courses and plenty of wine? Yes, please.

    • Chris

      Pollan does a great job of discussion the “nutritionism” topic. I read the book a while back and it literally changed my outlook on how I approach my foods. Sure, we can all be guilty sometimes of going the cheap, easy route, especially me when I get off a 14 hour day in the kitchen and/or culinary school and I simply don’t want to cook so I drive through the closest fast-food drive-thru and gorge on a burger or two. But I recommend this book to everyone I possibly can.

  • Liz @ Butter and Onions

    I work somewhere where I have to talk about the nitrate/nitrite issue constantly. Thanks for this post! Although I don’t think it will change anything about my job, at least I feel like I have a bit more wisdom now.

  • Victoria

    I believe that Julie Child used to suggest that if you eat nitrates/its, you should have orange juice to counter the effect. I can’t explain why, but just saying.

      • David

        I recall Carlton Frederics, AM radio nutrition specialist from the 70’s, making that same claim, but it had to be fresh OJ to ensure transport of bioflavinoids to counteract the nitrate/trite combo.

  • George

    Hurray for you Michael! The nutrition police have been scaring us to death for decades and almost always end up recanting their dire warnings. Thanks for contributing some common sense to the discussion,

  • Anna

    Of course folks who have allergies/other negative reactions to nitrites need to stay away from them, but I find it confusing when this warning is then generalized to those of us who have no adverse reactions to them whatsoever; it seems to me the same as if one were to say that because some people have (fatal!) peanut allergies, peanuts are unhealthy and dangerous. We all need to take our individual health concerns into account any time we eat anything, but an allergy/trigger for some does not mean that nitrites are unhealthy for all.

    • Ellendra

      Some people do think that everyone should avoid a food if someone ELSE is allergic to it. I’ve had 3 doctors tell me to avoid gluten, soy, peanuts, dairy, etc., even though every test they run shows I am not sensitive to them.

  • M

    Wasn’t it Harold McGee that wrote about how “no nitrites added” in fact turned out to mean that the product was vegetable-cured (celery juice, for instance, which is very nitrate-rich)?

    It doesn’t neccessary make the product superior or inferior, it’s just another way of doing the same thing. What I can’t see it why they have to resort to a “no nitrites added” hoax — in my eyes, “vegetable cured” would work just fine as a selling point and it would be more honest.

  • jbl

    So what makes you think the Red Dye 40 warnings are “apparently genuine?”

      • Brian

        More anecdata: A friend of mine has a child who has been diagnosed with a bizarre reaction to several “artificial colors” – several of the FD&C red, yellow, and blue compounds. His level of affliction is unfortunate, but he is “lucky” in that he has an immediate and obvious reaction within minutes of being “dosed”, so they were able to narrow down with certainty what the problem was.

  • Henrik

    Very interesting read as I have not been able to get this brand (Niman Ranch) out here in Arizona. Contacted TJ’s and the official answer is “vendor can’t keep up with demand”. Wonder if what you have brought up here is more it. “Nitrates’ or not – a pretty decent product in my opinion.

    • BG

      Decent product does not mean it’s better. Come to my house where I cure bacon using PURE ingredients, not tainted celery juice like TJ uses and you’ll never go back.

      • Henrik

        I totally agree – nothing mass produced will EVER compare to home-made, made from scratch – I was measuring it vs. other supermarket products 🙂

  • Mike Kropp

    Cooks Illustrated had both regular and “No Nitrates Added” tested and found higher levels in the _supposedly_ better bacon. I freely admit to using pink salt in my bacon and other sausages.

    Loved the “But whatever you do, stay away from too much celery. That stuff’ll kill ya.”

    • BG

      They certainly aren’t the healthiest though, human’s are OMNIvores, meaning we need meat to survive properly as well, there’s no debate in that.

  • Georgia Pellegrini

    I wish there were a list of all of the misnomers when it comes to food, ie. “Light Heavy Cream,” “All Natural,” etc. None of it means anything yet companies are so quick to monetize people’s interest in healthier foods. It is negligent and dangerous.

  • Schlake

    To me it comes down to the fact that food is grown. Digging up minerals in Chile isn’t growing food. Synthesizing ammonia from the atmosphere to convert to a chemical isn’t food. Mixing acid and ash isn’t food.

    Celery, though, is grown. Celery is food.

      • Schlake

        Actually, I don’t. I’m allergic to iodine, so I’ve spent my entire life hating salt because it tastes like death.

        • BG

          Salt doesn’t mean Iodine. And if you have gone your live without salt you wouldn’t live very long. Salt is the most important substance to life on earth, without it our body cell’s cannot function. It’s also the most important culinary ingredient, both reasons are why it used to be the most valuable substance and used for money. Just stop using iodized salt, but make sure you get your iodine somehow, because it’s essential to your body as well.

  • BJ

    Knowledge IS power! You can only count on yourself, and it is YOUR responsibility for what you put, or don’t put in your mouth.

  • Terrie

    I make my bacon using Michael’s recipe and feel that the fact that I am using pasture based, heathy meat from a farmer I know is much more important to its overall healthiness, than whether or not I put a small amount of pink salt in the cure. I’m pretty sure that most of that “no nitrites added” bacon was made in a huge factory with feed lot hogs…THAT is what makes it unhealthy.

  • Natalie

    “Nitrate occurs naturally in plants; levels vary between species
    and with different soil conditions and the amount of fertiliser
    used. In high-income countries, vegetables account for 70–97
    per cent of dietary nitrate intake. Between 5 and 20 per cent
    of the nitrate in diets is converted by the body into nitrite, a sub-
    stance that is also found in some vegetables (notably potatoes).
    Nitrite is used to preserve processed meats (it is extremely toxic
    to bacteria) and gives cured meats their recognisable colour and
    flavours. The addition of nitrite and nitrate to food is regulat-
    ed and monitored in most countries.
    Nitrite can react with the degradation products of amino
    acids to form N-nitroso compounds (nitrosamines or
    nitrosamides). These may be formed in meat during the curing
    process or in the body (particularly in the stomach) from dietary
    nitrite (or nitrate).
    Several N-nitroso compounds are known human or animal
    carcinogens. There is concern that nitrite, from processed meats
    for example, nitrates in vegetables, and preformed nitrosamines
    may be involved in carcinogenesis, particularly in the stomach.
    Dietary nitrates and nitrites are probable human
    carcinogens because they are converted in the body to N-nitroso
    compounds.” – An excerpt from the 2nd Expert Report on Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global perspective, 2007.

  • Nancy@acommunaltable

    I think you are being a tad harsh on the manufacturer’s Michael. They are simply responding to consumer demand and they are caught between a rock and a hard place. Every day I peruse the web and see “study” after “study” linking some ingredient or “additive” to some sort of health issue. The majority of these “studies” can’t even definitively establish a correlation let alone causation – but that no longer seems to matter. People have decided that the fault for America’s health woes lies squarely at the feet of America’s food producers (big Ag, manufacturer’s, producers, etc. ) and any indictment of them is acceptable regardless of the validity of the science used to justify it. I think the people you should really be ranting at are the ones who publish the “junk” that passes for science and the utter failure of the media to critically examine and report on these issues.

    • BG

      Nancy, they are stuck between an ignorant and a moronic place. People’s ignorance is no place for us to give them a pass.

    • Barbara | VinoLuciStyle

      So true Nancy. Milk is bad for you…wait, now it’s good for you. Same with eggs and butter and everything else we love. I won’t say I blithely ignore most of it; that would be moronic but I do take it all with a grain of salt (and no, really didn’t mean to make a joke but there is some relevancy in there!).

      All I know is that I just took my pig belly out of the brine with all of the salts and nitrites and can’t wait to smoke it today with some bourbon soaked wood chips and then hope to practice what I preach of ‘everything in moderation.’

  • Tags

    My favorite has to be meat that says “hormone-free” on the label, which isn’t really necessary since hormones in meat are illegal.

    • BG

      Haha, or that meat doesn’t already have hormone’s! ALL meat has hormone’s, it’s something that our bodies produce, even animals.

    • Darlene

      This makes me laugh too. I met a researcher at a conference who worked in agriculture. He worked on testing hormones on pigs to make them mature faster. He had to “refocus” his research when hormone use got nixed.

    • Deb W

      I saw a label that said “no hormones added” the other day, which really puzzled me. Do they mean “no hormones fed?” As far as I know, no hormones are ever added after slaughter, but I wouldn’t put it past the retailers to put that on a meat label to confuse the consumer.

  • Janie

    Stella, Allergic to pork..I am so sorry!

    smg, Lets hope you can trust the levels they claim they are!

    Bacon…greatest food on the planet! (my grandfather used to make his own Prosciutto…wish I would have gotten that recipe…) Pork..gotta Love it.

  • BG

    This is a great article and really emphasizes the ignorance so many people out there have about bacon, just like the fat/salt/MSG debate, or that grilled foods cause cancer. And to think some people actually believe that humans are herbivores and shouldn’t eat meat. Human’s are omnivores, and fat, salt, nitrate, nitrite, and most all of those “bad” things are necessary for your body to survive.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Dr. Joe Schwarcz, an old professor of mine, who runs the department of Science and Sociology at McGill University says that…”Leafy vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and beets are rich in nitrates and their consumption may actually be the secret to the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet…” He goes on to say the Mediterranean diet features a hundred more times more nitrate than the average American diet and that Nitrates and Nitrites help to improve the heart’s muscles… “… a healthy intake of nitrate rich vegetables could spell the difference between a mild heart attack and one that causes lasting heart damage or death. Since nitrite also accumulates in the brain, it could reduce damage from a stroke as well. So Popeye probably had a pretty healthy heart…

  • Casey

    Anyone know of a way to test nitrate level of raw celery juice? I like the idea of veg curing for flavor reasons just a matter of finding accurate ratios.. Celery cured salmon sounds tasty but then again could just use celery juice + salt..

    • bob del Grosso

      The only way determine exactly how much nitrate is in a sample of celery juice is to have it assayed at a lab. I’ve read reports of samples that tested at 1400, 2000, 3000 ppm (parts per million). It’s all over the amp and entirely dependent on soil conditions in which the plant grew and the water content and age of the juice at the time the test is performed.

  • Schlake

    So you don’t eat… salt?

    I’m allergic to iodine, so I’ve spent my entire life avoiding salt because it tastes like death.

    • Grant

      Not all salt contains iodine. Iodine started being added to salt because people weren’t getting enough iodine in their diet. Iodine is essential to a healthy thyroid gland. I assume, as you are allergic to iodine, you suffer from hypothyroidism and goiter as well?

      You don’t have to avoid all salt.

  • kayenne

    is this somewhat similar to what i hear about bromates in flour? someone told me that it doesn’t quite matter as bromates evaporate as the bread bakes.

  • Mike Romeo

    I’ve had this debate with many people and I wish I had the nerve to delve deeply into it all again…but it is pretty draining. Anyway:

    Something not mentioned yet is how a lot of the industrial curing with celery is actually done with concentrated celery juice powders, not straight up celery juice. That extra liquid throws of the ratios of meat/liquid for the sausages being made and concentrating the celery product is how they manage to get the same required amount of nitrate to produce a cure into the product. There is still science going on and producers are going to go about making a consistent repeatable product for consumers; all steps are still accounted for in making these things…celery juice isn’t magic. The same chemical processes are happening.

    Additionally, I truly don’t believe that people who say they’re allergic to nitrates but can eat products made with celery substitutes with no ill effects are physically allergic to nitrates. It is either a self diagnosis from years (or less in many cases) of reactions with various foods and making a deduction themselves, or a misdiagnosis from a physician (that neeeeeeever happens riiiiiight?) Food borne allergies are among the most misdiagnosed things out there. I’m not saying that they aren’t allergic to something in the products, or their reactions are not legitimate, but I believe that they’re more often than not, looking for a scape goat in the nitrates.

  • Jay

    …”Da der, da der, da der, down the aisle we go.”…


    “Can we really be this stupid? I have only one word to say on this beyond an emphatic yes.”

    God love ya, Ruhlman! Thanks for the laugh today. More stupid & ignorant people in this country than we would be comfortable admitting.

  • Allan Suddaby

    For more on the “toxins” naturally occurring in vegetables, and how nutritionism can be used to make any food sound dangerous, see Jeffrey Steingarten’s essay “Salad: The Silent Killer.”

  • Diana@Spain in Iowa

    Thanks for this post. I’m definitely an advocate of…

    “Eat natural, minimally processed foods. Eat a balanced diet. Cook it for yourself and the people you care about. Enjoy a little fat. Salt your own fresh food yourself.”

    Great words!

  • Mike McKenzie

    (Skip to the bottom for the short cut) I operate a small shop where we source local, drug free pork. There feed is even grown on the same farm. We turn that pork into just about everything you can find in your book. The pork we use is just as important as everything else I put in there. I try to keep my labels as clean and easy to read as I can. So naturally with a product like this I attract every health nut out there, and they all ask the same question. When these nitrate free products started coming out I was so angry that our government could let something like this slip by but be so strict in other useless areas. But after a year of reflections I am not so sure. Yes I think it is without question deceiving. However it is not my role as the sausage maker to educate every one out there about what good food is. I see my role as one who can make good ethical and sustainable foods accessible to the people. With this accessibility I hope will come inspiration and then education. My question is, if some of my customers demand celery juice rather than nitrate on the label should I give them that peace of mind? I know from experience that informing them often doesn’t work. By allowing this I can then sell a product that meets many other ethical standards as well. Should I or shouldn’t I, I’m not sure.

  • Matt

    When it comes to food additives and such, I go with the folks at CSPI because they do the science to back it up. They put sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite on the “avoid” list, and I’ll quote them:

    “Meat processors love sodium nitrite because it stabilizes the red color in cured meat (without nitrite, hot dogs and bacon would look gray) and gives a characteristic flavor. Sodium nitrate is used in dry cured meat, because it slowly breaks down into nitrite. Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of potent cancer-causing chemicals (nitrosamines), particularly in fried bacon. Nitrite, which also occurs in saliva and forms from nitrate in several vegetables, can undergo the same chemical reaction in the stomach. Companies now add ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid to bacon to inhibit nitrosamine formation, a measure that has greatly reduced the problem. While nitrite and nitrate cause only a small risk, they are still worth avoiding.

    “Several studies have linked consumption of cured meat and nitrite by children, pregnant women, and adults with various types of cancer. Although those studies have not yet proven that eating nitrite in bacon, sausage, and ham causes cancer in humans, pregnant women would be prudent to avoid those products.”

    It’s pretty blunt about why to avoid certain additives. That’s from and the list of “safe” additives is much longer than the list of additives to avoid. And no, I didn’t quote the paragraph about tying nitrates to “fatty, salty foods” that most people could use to eat less, but that’s all the more reason to eat higher-quality ones when you do.

    There’s the overview; make up your own mind.

    • Blakery

      Those “studies” are observational epidemiological studies. It’s impossible to control for all the confounders in a diet based observational study. They really are nearly useless. The amount of other things that correlates with consumption of cured meats is endless, and includes consumption of things like sugar and artificial dyes.

    • Grant

      Now I have the excuse I needed to stop eating celery and spinach forever.

  • karen downie makley

    I had a customer who said she was allergic to sodium nitrate and said it caused a response like some people have when they ingest MSG…headache, fatigue, bloating.
    That being said, I DO agree with you that many people have a lemming-style response to what they’ve heard through the most suspect media sources. There is a certain “hip/cool/healthy-lifestyle” grocer who preys on this crowd. Sure, they carry some quality items, but there is also plenty of drek for which they charge exorbitant prices because you have had the privilege of shopping among like-minded individuals. Ugh. They are no smarter than your “Snackwells” shopper, but given the chance, they would be glad to explain to you why they are so smart about food…and everything.
    (oof. Now, I’M ranting!)

  • Luke

    It’s interesting that US cures (ie Cure #1) have 6.25% Sodium Nitrite and the equivalent products (Peklosol, Colarazo) in Europe -Poland, Germany, France -the birthplace of cured meats, use 0.6% nitrite in their cures.

  • Elise

    Hi Michael, the thing that irks me is the “no added nitrites or nitrates” as if the fact that they’re adding celery powder means nothing. Or “uncured” even though they are obviously “curing” with celery powder. It is false, misleading, and playing off of people’s food fears to market their cured product that is loaded with nitrates. When I saw a bright pink slab of corned beef for sale at TJ’s, marketed as “uncured” I knew there was a problem.

    Thanks for the post Michael!

  • Ken

    “Nitrite, which also occurs in saliva”

    So, George Carlin was right, “Science has discovered that Saliva causes cancer, but only if swallowed in small amounts over a long period of time.”

  • Darya

    Hi Michael,

    I’m a scientist and I’ve read up a bit on nitrites. I agree, the data condemning them is weak at best, and the health claims you speak of are absolutely immoral marketing ploys (btw, you’ll probably love the guest post on Summer Tomato tomorrow by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, Nutritionism 101).

    However, there is a good amount of data that processed meats can be dangerous, and this includes any cured or preserved meats. We still don’t know exactly why (I tend to agree that it probably isn’t the nitrites), and it certainly doesn’t make them a forbidden food. But it does mean that they should be consumed in moderation and in the context of a healthy diet of comprising of mostly natural, unprocessed foods.

    I think it is also worth pointing out that the source and quality of the meat is likely as important as the curing method in terms of health risk.

    Keep up the great work,


    • BG

      “However, there is a good amount of data that processed meats can be dangerous”
      Isn’t that sort of the same as saying there’s good amount of data that water can be dangerous, or literally anything else? That being said, it seems from your post that you’re saying they are perfectly healthy if eaten in moderation like everything else.

  • Kim

    I have multiple food and chemical sensitivities (MCS). I can eat bacon that is cured with a natural source of nitrites/nitrates (beet or celery powder), but cannot eat bacon that is cured with sodium nitrate/sodium nitrite. Likewise, I am sensitive to cellulose. I can’t take any medicine that is in a cellulose capsule or uses cellulose as a filler. I have to use gloves to keep from touching paper/cardboard. However, I can eat veggies, which contain cellulose. For me, the source is key.

  • NilZed

    I wonder if THIS is why I saw celery listed amongst the allergy notifications on a packaged food (I no longer recall what) I purchased in the UK? It was evidently packaged for sale in several countries, and I specifically recall celery being listed as needing to be warned about in Germany. The list looked something like:

    In E. U. : this, that, and the other
    In Scotland: this, that, and the other,
    In Germany: this, that, and the other, and celery

    I thought it quite strange that Germans seemed to be allergic to celery when the rest of us aren’t. Perhaps it’s that celery = nitrites and Germans generally worry about such things? Given that their own preserved meat laws are so strict I wonder how regulated nitrates/nitrates are in that category?

  • M

    NilZed: Different legislations, most likely. For instance, in Sweden it is illegal to use a statement such as “no X added” in packaging or marketing. You declare say what’s in there, but you can’t speak of what hasn’t been added. Which I personally think is quite sound, especially seeing examples such as the nitrite-free bacon which is just misleading.

  • CEOHouse

    Here’s a hot tip: Look at the label. If it has more than 3-4 ingredients and/or unintelligible words, put it down and walk away. Make your own food!!!

    • Mantonat

      Here’s a hotter tip: if you see unintelligible words, learn them. Then you can make an informed decision on whether to walk away or not. Everything is less scary with a dash of knowledge.

      • BG

        That’s exactly what I thought, if you don’t know the words, then learn them, that’s the problem with most of us in the world today, not just US, is ignorance is considered a viable defense. If you are ignorant, then you are only injuring your self when choosing foods.

  • jbl

    The folks at CSPI are agenda setting alarmists whose purpose is propagandizing, not informing, in order to justify their existence; just sayin’.

  • Teri

    now my bacon is bad? Forget it, pass me a double bacon cheeseburger, a templeton rye and a cig. I will at least go happy.

  • rb

    Just a small clarification. Nitrites in the stomach are converted to nitric oxide, not nitrous oxide. I saw this in the first linked article you referenced, which is excellent.

  • Jake

    Great article! The only decent reason I see for avoiding nitrates is flavor concerns. The now defunct Knight Salumi company never used nitrates (celery juice included) because they didn’t like the flavor it imparted to the meats. And while I’ve happily gorged on many a nitrate laden sausages, theirs definitely had a unique character due to the omission of nitrates and using a different curing style based more on cultures.

  • Nuala

    Thank you for this. I’m a food science graduate student and I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve found myself in over this issue (and the ‘danger’ of MSG, gluten, sugar, salt, you name it). I do wonder, however, about your statment – ‘food marketers preying on a confused consumer who has been taught to fear food’. Should we be going after food marketers, or should we be going after the consumers that demanded no-nitrate-added bacon because of some ridiculous claim likely picked up in popular media somewhere, driving the food industry to make these products? I don’t trust food marketers either, but they’re only as successful as their consumers allow them to be.

    • Shoshanna

      MSG IS dangerous! It’s an excitotoxin which causes the brain cells to over fire and die! It’s also linked to numerous allergies and hives.

      • Nuala

        Actually, there is not a single scholarly paper that has successfully linked MSG to any harmful condition. Glutamate occurs naturally in tomatoes, seaweed, Parmesan cheese, and other delicious foods that people eat everyday. My feeling has always been that any generalized symptoms that people seem to experience due to MSG are simply due to overeating (ie. how the symptoms got the name ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’).

      • BG

        It is most certainly NOT dangerous as has been proven by scientists world wide, and I believe has been proven by psychologists to be simply an ignorance thing.

        • kc

          I believe you are referring to a Food Network show that was rigged to show those particular results. The show served two different meals: one supposedly free of MSG and the other loaded with it and found reactions in both groups. The only problem is that the meals free from MSG contained other hydrolyzed protein additives (soy protein isolate, hydrolized vegetable broth, etc.) in place of the pure monosodium glutamate. Do you get it yet? The same trick that is used by food manufacturers nationwide was used on gullible TV viewers. And here are you quoting from that same stupid show like its the gospel. BTW, the same trick was used in medical studies to discount the MSG reaction. The capsules that contained the placebo did contain aspartame which produces a reaction in the same group of MSG sensitive individuals as MSG.

  • melissa

    I know my butcher, its an Italian actually, definitely feel more confident when I purchase meet. I stay away from the grocery, only for staples, NEVER MEAT. Somebody fill me in tho because a healthier version of bacon is simply dumb.

  • Dianasaur Dishes

    Hi Michael, what a fantastic post. When I posted a video on how to make bacon after your BlogHer Food demo, I got a lot of mean spirited comments (which I deleted) saying I’m going to die of cancer and how dare I spread such dangerous methods. I even wrote a little about nitrates in the post but a lot of people seem to have quite the panis button about it. I’ll link to this post from mine and hopefully those kinds of comments will die down.

    On another note, I used to think I was allergic to pork and it killed me because I LOVE bacon. My reactions to pork were inconsistent but it happened enough that I new it wasn’t just a few cases of food poisoning. My friend Elise suggested I try organic pork. Now that I only eat organic pork I have not had any negative reactions. I don’t know if it might be an antibiotic used in some pork or what, but it’s been one more example of why I want to careful what I put in my body.

  • Colleen

    Dr. Sears says they cause carcinogen build up in the intestines. He included avoiding them in his anti-cancer diet.

  • Henrik

    If we forget about the scientific debate for a moment, does anyone have recommendation for good bacon (brand, store and accessible in AZ)?

  • ATR

    I agree it is unlikely that nitrates/nitrites consumed in amounts found in foods will result in cancer.

    However, the body is a very complex organism and its functions still rife with mystery.

    There is a link between the gut and the brain. For one plausible if not proven example: the majority of serotonin is made in the gut. Inconveniently, some pathogenic microorganisms also use serotonin for their own processes. If nitrites act as a non-specific antimicrobial, it may adversely affect a given person’s gut flora. If that person doesn’t chew up the tough cellulose structures of vegetables like celery, so exposure from cured meats is higher than sodium nitrate measured in a lab. It could, conceivably result in increased pathogenic bacteria and …still reaching… different levels of serotonin. Serotonin has a myriad of effects including: digestion regulation, mood, aggression, and blood clotting.

    Above are A LOT of ifs. However, one could at least appreciate that if all those ifs are true, at least one person in the history of people could claim to have a reaction to sodium nitrite added to food as opposed to being ‘grown into’ food.

    For the TJ bacon you mentioned, the obvious intent is that one becomes convinced that one person is yourself!

  • E. Nassar

    A-effing-men. Thank you for this post.
    I am proud to say that I have turned several friends and coworkers from this No Nitrates BS. I simply ask them “does it have celery juice/powder?” and then ask them to look it up. If they need more convincing, I usually have them taste my home-cured bacon. This post will save me more time if I need to make my argument again.

  • Crystal

    From :

    A. It is true that nitrites are commonly found in many green vegetables, especially spinach, celery and green lettuce. However, the consumption of vegetables appears to be effective in reducing the risk of cancer. How is this possible? The explanation lies in the formation of N-nitroso compounds from nitrites and amines. Nitrite containing vegetables also have Vitamin C and D, which serve to inhibit the formation of N-nitroso compounds. Consequently, vegetables are quite safe and healthy, and serve to reduce your cancer risk.

  • Darren

    I’m just copy and pasting from a past post I made on this site. It seems to apply here too.

    “I used to be wary of nitrites and additives before getting Charcuterie and making stuff out of it, but that stopped when I considered this: pink salt is only 6.25% nitrite, the rest is salt, a little coloring, and apparently some propylene glycol. A person weighing about 150 pounds would need to ingest 4 to 6 grams of PURE sodium nitrite to get a toxic dose (toxic meaning detrimental, but not necessarily fatal). Consider Charcuterie’s American Glazed Ham recipe. I don’t have the book in front of me, but I think it had around 30 grams of pink salt in it. 6.25% of 30 grams is about 1.9g of pure nitrite, not enough for a toxic dose. Then consider that this is dispersed in a gallon of water. So the majority of the nitrite is going down the drain when you’re finished (or washed away in the case of a dry cure). Then consider that you’re probably not eating these cured products on a daily basis. I love bacon, but I don’t eat it daily. If you are eating them daily it’s probably small portions like a slice of ham on a sandwich, etc.

    As a culinary version of Blue Oyster Cult might sing, “Don’t fear the nitrites!””

  • MrBelm

    Nitrate scares have been gong on since at least the seventies, when I first became aware of the issue. My physiology professor at MIT addressed the issue in class one day: “The bacteria that reside on your teeth produce more nitrates in a day than what you ingest after consuming four slices of bacon.”

    I’ve been using that line ever since, and have had to say it in every conversation I have about curing my own bacon.

  • JW

    Caveat: I am a physician and researcher and am able to understand the medical literature quite well. The following is my understanding and opinion.

    Nitrates used in curing meats almost immediately bind to myoglobin and what is left over ~ 10-20% is available to interact with other substances and form known carcinogens (N-nitroso compounds). Several studies suggest an increased risk of several human cancers including childhood leukemias, childhood brain tumors, and various GI malignancies. There have been a few prospective studies in populations that ingest high amounts of nitrates (Finnish in particular with their cured fish) that were inconclusive.

    On the other hand, inorganic nitrate from vegetable (which also contain antioxidants like Vitamin C) typically form nitric oxide which promotes vascular health. Nitric oxide lowers blood pressure and prevents platelets from clumping (the 1st thing that happens before you have your massive heart attack). It is unlikely that nitrates added to foods have this same effect as they are likely already formed.

    In summary: evidence is inconclusive. Risk may be over-stated, but there are theoretical concerns. As with everything in life…moderation is the best bet.

    • bob del Grosso

      JW If I may add a bit of my understanding to what you have written. (I don’t think anything that follows will contradict what you have laid down.)

      In foods that are not deliberately fermented (e.g. bacon that is not aged) some of the nitrite is reduced to nitric oxide which binds to myoglobin while the rest remains as nitrite. It’s that ‘left over’ nitrite that forms nitrosamines when the bacon is cooked. In order to minimize the creation of nitrosamines the USDA limits the amount of nitrite to 200ppm in bacon and other products that will be cooked. The end user can also dramatically reduce the creation of nitrosamines in cured meats by cooking them at a low temperature. So burnt weenie sandwiches are a bad idea but nitrited hot dogs simmered in beer should have very few to zero nitrosamines.

      In foods that are fermented (e.g. salame) almost all of the nitrite is converted into nitric oxide by the fermentation microbes. So if it is eaten without cooking, the formation of nitrosamines should not be an issue.

      • JW

        Seems logical but the bloody nitrosamines are in lots of foods, including the beer you would poach your brat! Seems the roasting of the barley is to blame. You are correct about the high heat, though those roasted piggie bits are what I crave. Additionally, cooking at temperatures that promote caramelization produce heterocyclic amines…again, known carcinogens.

        The good news is, it appears that vitamin C is protective. Currently (I think), the FDA also requires the addition of vitamin C or vitamin C-like compounds to foods processed with added nitrates. Research regarding the benefits is on-going. My opinion is that the issue is too complex to be elucidated. The more we learn, the less we know. We thought once we sequenced the human genome, we would have all the answers! In actuality, knowing the DNA sequences was only the tip of the iceberg. Sorry for the aside.

        Does anyone add vitamin C or the likes to their home charcuterie?

    • Abbe

      So what about the concentrated celery product used in place of the sodium nitrite? It must be processed into a form where it can go through the same process with the meat to cure it and turn it pink, so does it also leave unbound nitrite that can form nitrosamines? Or do other compounds in the celery mean that what’s left forms nitric oxide instead?

  • Natalie Sztern

    This has been fascinating reading especially since I had such a difficult time getting the curing product to participate in Charcutepalooza. In Montreal, I can’t say all of Canada, the road blocks I came up against was incomprehensible to most people.

    However it wasn’t the nitrates that was the problem it was the home curing situation that was the problem and therefore impossible to buy the necessary nitrates I needed. Included in those with concerns for my health was butchers, old professors and a few Chowhounders.

    Yet I have never seen a product sold here that states Nitrate Free. In the land of Smoked Meat, and until this post I didn’t know there was even such an animal as Nitrate-Free.

  • Shoshanna

    Ok, but you cannot compare naturally occurring in nature to what is made in the lab. Vitamin c from an orange is not the same as lab created C. The nitrites in meat HAVE been linked to hives, cancer, allergies, and so on.

  • ruhlman


    Actually, there is not a single scholarly paper that has successfully linked MSG to any harmful condition. Glutamate occurs naturally in tomatoes, seaweed, Parmesan cheese, and other delicious foods that people eat everyday. My feeling has always been that any generalized symptoms that people seem to experience due to MSG are simply due to overeating (ie. how the symptoms got the name ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’).

    RTing that

  • Chris D

    Somewhat on the same topic, my pet peeve about Trader Joe’s is their advertisements for beef labels “100% vegetarian fed”. They used to have 100% grass fed beef, not it’s vegetarian, which I can only conclude means corn. I’ve since stopped purchasing any protein from Trader Joes and rarely shop there at all anymore.

    • Abbe

      On the other hand, it means they’re not mixing in random bits of sheep blood with the corn that feeds the beef, so that’s something. (Apparently while the USDA won’t let you feed scrap beef to cows because of mad cow / prion borne disease, it’s fine to feed different scrap meat to naturally herbivorous mammals. Yum.)

  • Darren

    I like how they try to boost the idea that this bacon is uncured by saying, “Keep refrigerated below 40 degrees at all time.” Like regular bacon can just sit on the counter for days. Hurray for the sneaky world of advertizing.

  • Carolyn Z

    We go to a butcher near where my husband works. He sells grass-fed beef and pork, and we trust his bacon. That’s where we buy it to add flavor to dishes. Neither of us is talented in the curing arts.

    For grass-fed chicken, there is the farmer’s market at the Ferry bldg in SF, among other locations around here.

    By the way, is there a new Android version of Ratio coming out any time soon? Off topic, sorry.

  • Nick (Macheesmo)

    Amazing that food producers not only try this, but that they largely get away with it. What a sham and thanks for calling them out.

  • Jess

    Kind of a non-sequitir, but I find the baby food recommendations to be largely cultural; in Germany, they don’t tell parents not to give their babies spinach and carrots, and certainly all German toddlers are eating plenty of cured meats, I can tell you that. Same goes for all kinds of baby food recommendations (e.g. the whole “serve only plain foods, testing a new one every week”… babies in India and Mexico eat well seasoned food from the get go; I’ve also heard no fish for the first year, but plenty of kids around the world eat fish as baby food… I could go on).

    Word on the MSG, nutritionism and crazy false advertising. I just discovered this blog today and I’m so glad I did!

  • Karl G.

    Nitrate and Nitrite are different entrance ramps on the same expressway. Nitrate converts to Nitrite converts to Nitric Oxide and reacts with myoglobin to change pigment and flavor.

    They react given the correct concentration, time, and temperature to create a playground (within the structure of processed meat) less friendly to botulism, with a pleasing pink color, delicious flavor, and increased resistance to spoilage. Gross under explanation.

    To call something with Nitrate curing elements “uncured” is too focused on pleasing the crowd paranoid about nitrites, and not clear enough for anyone else with a brain. What the gov-eaucrats are not acknowledging, out of ignorance or laziness, is that there is more than one way to cure.

    To call fermented celery powder “natural” or “unprocessed” is balderdash. Same is true with fermented celery juice. Celery powder generically (drop the fermentation element) is not a curing agent. I’m not prepared to substantiate this, other than to say, it just ain’t so. BTW celery powder is not a great culinary ingredient – it’s a lazy cooks flavoring agent.

    So at the end of the day (a colloquialism that need’s to be improved) Sodium Nitrite is very closely monitored by a different set of bureaucrats. The concentration of commercially purchased nitrite is very closely monitored for health reasons and possibly because it may have other applications the government wants to monitor (I dunno). Fermented Juices and powders are a lot less regulated. Some were tested at some point in time, but they are not necessarily batch tested and verified. I think it’s harder to say your controlling concentration with a natural product, but I could be wrong. You also don’t have the benefit of Sodium Erythorbate, an ingredient which increases the speed of curing action (the conversion from nitrite to nitric oxide to myoglobin reaction).

    We all want to think we’re smarter than dumber. Paranoia about additives in food is healthy. When the government adopts it, runs with it, dances in the endzone with it, maybe we have a problem. USDA label approval process is not a fine tuned machine. It’s a bit like a roulette wheel with seamless approval on one instance and blood letting on the next. Undoubtably there are good people holding these posts, but are they attached to the smarter people who can look at science, take into account political pressure, and detect bullshit when they smell it? I dunno. Good luck.

  • A

    I’m very sad, because I really like celery.

    Funny thing is that I’ve told many friends that I feel so much better when I eat a bunch of celery too. But now that my brain knows it’s loaded with nitrates, I wonder if it will give me the same benefits?

    ; )

  • Dave_C

    I file this under the “I’m afraid to eat. I believe is junk science” category.

    Nitraites/Nitrites fear has been around for at least 15 – 20 years.
    The NYT article from 2007 was an eye opener and I’ve been pointing people to that article for the past few years.

    Other marketing claims that bug me…
    “100% fruit juice” or the “No added Sugar” claim. However, those drinks are loaded with concentrate. So juices are boiled down to concentrate sugars in order to minimize cane sugar/HFCS use, but sugar is sugar in my book.

    MSG/Chinese food “give: people headaches, but have no problem eating or using canned broths, bullion cubes, snack foods… etc.

    People are too afraid to eat!

  • Stuart Reb Donald

    Michael, a great piece as usual. The best advice in there, “Eat a balanced diet.”

    Moderation is the key to avoiding food-phobia. McDonald’s, Burger King, et al are atrocious nutritionally but they won’t kill you if you only eat them one or twice a month. Once or twice a week and you’re in trouble. Balance is the key. Remember in the 90’s when we were told fat was bad? Turns out we need to consume more unsaturated fats like olive oil because we had gotten out of balance by consuming too many saturated fats (which incidentally the body also needs). Moderation. The only chemicals we should try to avoid are the newfangled synthetics like hydrogenated oils like shortening which is 100% trans fat (despite what the nutritional label says) and high fructose corn syrup. Even those aren’t too terrible in moderation.

  • Jeanne

    As someone who is allergic to many foods and knows many people who are allergic to many foods, I get tired of the “you’re not really allergic to [x] you are just stupid and think you are” comments like those I am seeing on the replies to this list. I (and my friends) are all allergist-tested and have bonafide real allergies or intolerances. Just because you don’t think something can be allergenic (i.e., a meat or a food dye or a vegetable or an additive) doesn’t mean allergies to it don’t exist. I don’t know much about nitrates/nitrites, but they are indeed linked to migraines and I’m guessing that different sources of them might have tiny chemical differences that make one more problematic for a sensitive person than another. And if you don’t have a food allergy/sensitivity/intolerance (and don’t have friends who do) you are extremely lucky and I would count your blessings rather than mock those of us who do.

    • Lsura

      Yes. This. I don’t have a lot of allergies, but the nitrite/nitrate one is my major one. My reaction is primarily heart related and has twice landed me in the emergency room until the racing/pounding was able to be calmed – the reaction in me mimics a combination of dehydration and low blood sugar. It took a long time to identify this, because no one thought it was possible.

      I can, occasionally, have small bits of uncured meats/no nitrite/ate added products without generating a reaction. But I don’t push my luck on this – occasionally gets me through it, and since I don’t relish the idea of emergency room visits that’s good enough for me.

  • Peggy

    It’s like I can’t buy anything in the store anymore without trying to be gimmicked into it! I’ll take your advice and stick with my CSA produce and local farm proteins! Seems to be working just fine!

  • former butcher

    The fat and sodium in your cured meat products will kill you long before the curing chemicals will.
    As an aside, I remember as part of my USDA training many years ago, being told the cautionary tale of a restaurant owner who was told of the “tenderizing” effect of sodium Nitrite on meat. So, naturally, he sourced some pure sodium nitrite and added it to his meat menu items, even to the point of putting shakers of it out on the tables, labeled “tenderizer.” After a couple of near fatalities, and some jail time, he learned that sodium nitrite was NOT a tenderizer.

  • M.K.

    Please do more research before posting something like this. It is all about the Vitamin C! That is why the nitrates in lots of veggies and fruits are not a problem. A person can also reduce the risk of the harmful effects of nitrates by eating a natural Vitamin C-rich food when consuming a food laden with nitrates. This is especially important during pregnancy. (See the link Crystal posted above for info about Vitamin C and how this all begins to fit together). Since most people won’t do further research, your article will now spread misinformation.

  • Fran

    How timely. The New York Times did a piece on the FDA’s attempt to thwart claims of foods with “health benefits” or “functional foods” as it’s being called today. Functional foods?! Really? I have always known yogurt is good for digestive health, I don’t need some ad to tell me this and pomegranate juice. It’s a shame people are so out of touch.

  • Linsey M.

    Great entry Michael! I am gonna have to print it up for future reference. I have had the nitrate question posed to me by a few people since I started making our own bacon. Especially from my mother-in-law this past Sunday when she watched me preparing a fresh pork belly for curing. She was shocked to see me pull out the pink salt. I’ll have to send this to her. Maybe she’ll believe it coming from you.

  • Salami

    Disclaimer: I make and eat salami, bacon and lots of other cured meaty things but I do so in moderation. The eating that is. I also eat fresh and not the frankenfoods of the typical supermarket. But, with that said, three points to add to the conversation:

    1) Yes, the nitrite/nitrate concentrations of celery, celery powder and celery juice can vary widely. There are companies out there which recognize this and produce standardized & tested products. So, just like with cure #2 and other curing salts, you know just how much nitrate/nitrite you’re putting into your tasty meaty product.

    2) I agree that the labeling is deceiving and horrible. But, that is how you MUST say it – “uncured” if you don’t directly put nitrates/nitrites into the product. USDA will a come a knockin’ if you mislabel things.

    3) I saw research about a year ago at University of Iowa where the presenter said that nitrates/nitrites in moderate levels is not harmful. But, he also showed that people who live in the upper mid-west have a higher incidence of stomach cancers than the rest of the population because they eat so much more cured meats than the rest of the nation. However, the risks went from something like (I’m making up numbers here but the order of magnitude was something like this) 1 in 10,000,000 in the general population to 1 in a million for those in the upper mid-west. I’ll take my chances eating my salami.

  • Abbe

    Me, I’m glad they added *something* that keeps the meat preserved in a reasonably well understood chemical way even if they’re playing with the labeling of how they get the curing chemistry to happen. This means I don’t get botulism if I do buy it or treat it like I treat a traditionally cured product. And I sometimes do buy it, because brands like Applegate also sell a tasty poultry hot dog that is relatively low fat and low sodium and made with turkey that they weren’t feeding scraps from butchering mammals to. Since I care about that, I buy it and some of their lunch meat products on occasion… and am very glad to know it won’t spoil twice as fast as something with good old fashioned pink salt added.

  • Michelle

    Thank G*D for another voice added to the side of sanity. Here is a link to my favourite article of all time on the matter:

    It addresses the major flaws in the methodologies of studies that detected an effect of nitrate/ite on human health, & aptly whacks readers over the head with the truths that: (a) correlation does NOT equal causation; (b) appropriate experimental control and randomisation are the only paths to determining causality.

    There just isn’t evidence of a nitrate/ite effect.

  • Lucas Bozzo

    WOW. Awesome article. “Healthy foods” are changing consumers buying habits, and companies are taking advantage of that big time.

  • Dave McCulloch

    Most people are like sheep they have no ideas of there own and follow the flock. I have been using sodium nitrite for years in jerky sausage pepperoni because i like the color and love the flavour. I am 70 yrs. old and have survived 2 cancers and other health problems associated with chemo and I am as healthy as ever so who figures.

  • KosherCorvid

    I don’t know about nitrites, but red 40 is only contraindicated for pregnant women, as it was shown in trials to potentially slow the development of neural progenitor cells. In layman’s terms, embryonic cells that are going to become brain and nerve cells grow a little slower if mommy mouse is forced to eat over 1,000 times a normal dose of red 40 per day. That translates to straight up drinking over a cup of McCormick red food coloring a day. I understand that pregnant ladies sometimes have odd cravings, but unless several whole red velvet cakes are on the menu every day, there isn’t much to worry about. No negative effects have been recorded in post-foetal organisms.

  • Steve Tower

    I just came across this thread and am intrigued by by all the paranoia and misinformation out there. The FDA allows a maximum of 500 parts per million nitrate in processed meats. Spinach grown in the U.S. and Canada averages over 2,000 parts per million nitrate and and some samples are over 5,000 parts per million. You can eat a pound of bacon and consume less nitrate than if you ate a “healthy” spinach salad. If anyone is not eating bacon because of nitrate fears they are are misguided and missing out on one of the world’s most tasty foods. What do they eat that they think is safer? If you are not growing all your own fruits and vegetables without commercial fertilizers and raising all your own meat and dairy products under humane conditions without antibiotics you are eating a lot more dangerous stuff than naturally produced sodium nitrate.

  • Pam

    I get horrible reactions to packaged bacon (ie Oscar Meyer – yuck) but am fine when I eat the bacon made at my local meat market.

    I too suffer from severe migraines (much like someone said above) and buying prepackaged/processed anything is going to mess me up for whatever reason. I used to think that nitrates messed me up, but have learned that if I’m going to eat bacon, I’m going to get the good stuff. Period.

    The less something is processed the better ie buy bacon from the meat guy around the corner who makes it himself versus Trader Joe’s, you’ll support the little guy and eat something that hasn’t been sitting in a package for who knows how long!

    Nitrates via the powder or celery, doesn’t matter. It all comes out in the wash.

  • Karen Vaughan, L.Ac.

    Thank you for devoting a blog entry to this. Another reason not to use celery juice as a curing agent is the level of nitrates in celery juice is not consistent. That inconsistency can cause greater problems (including botulism poisoning) with obtaining a proper cure than the minuscule chance that you will get cancer.

    I’m not sure that is valid and it is certainly possible to check nitrate levels in celery. My concern is not whether celery et. al. contain nitrates but whether celery with its natural nitrates react in the body the same way as isolated nitrate salts. We know that there is a difference between fruit and fructose isolates (whether in HFCS or crystalline fructose), between natural and synthetic vitamins and between whole herbs with their buffers and cofactors and isolated phyto nutrients. So it is possible that the celery juice which has more than nitrates in it is closer to real food and could be better in bacon if used in a well-designed recipe.


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