We are what we eat right? For our family, this philosophy is a part of why we raise our animals on pasture, feed organic grain to our chickens and our cattle only eat grass. However, as we’ve learned, raising a happy, healthy animal is only part of the picture. We then have to process the animals, freeze the meat and get it into the kitchens of you our customer. For the most part, “processing” an animal is as simple as putting the cuts in your desired packaging, but for products like sausage, this means adding salt and spices, and for some products, like Bacon, smoked ham and hot dogs the process is even more complex.
Most folks have heard of nitrates, which are added to foods like our bacon, kielbasa, smoked chorizo and beef kielbasa to ensure they are safe to eat. But safe from what? After all, many of the farming and food practices that we find in our food system these days are meant to keep us “safe” but at what cost?
The answer to this question has changed throughout my career as a farmer. My introduction to Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite was in a small butcher shop in Oviedo, Spain. There the butcher shared with me his family’s coveted Chorizo recipe, which included something he refereed to as “fijante de color” or color stabilizer? My intention was to take my experience back to the states and start making cured, Spanish chorizo, which is exactly what I tried to do starting back in 2008. One of the first things I had to figure out was this mysterious ingredient and why it was in the sausage.
At this time in my farming career, I was ready to rebuke just about any “conventional” way of raising, preparing or even eating food:) I drank raw milk, ate no processed sugar and basically avoided any food ingredient that I couldn’t grow, with the exception of salt. So when I learned that my precious Chorizo recipe contained Cure #2 a mixture of salt, Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite I was disappointed. My beloved Spanish Chorizo, I learned, contained nitrates like so many of the processed foods I shunned.
So what are nitrates and why do we add them to certain foods? When we make “cured” foods like bacon, salami or hot dogs, we create an environment in the food itself that is conducive to to the growth of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum which is a spore forming bacterium with the ability to produce the neurotoxin botulinum. This neurotoxin is THE “most potent toxin known to humankind, natural or synthetic…”  Botulism is not an illness to take lightly, and so the FDA requires the use of Sodium Nitrite, which reacts with proteins and is converted to nitric oxide that then inhibits the growth of the bacterium who causes botulism.
If you’ve heard of nitrates, or are concerned about them, you’ve likely heard of their association with cancer. When nitrites react with protein to make nitric oxide, and is then heated (like cooking) nitrosamines can potentially form. Nitrosamines are the potential carcinogen when we think of nitrates and cancer. If you’re like me, then you’ve also likely sought out “Nitrate Free” alternatives because of this. Then I met Meredith Leigh.
Meredith came to our farm and taught a Charcuterie Intensive course at our small butcher shop, and we learned a TON about food, meat and how to prepare it. By the way, if you’re into learning, I’d highly recommend checking out her online courses!
One of the most memorable pieces of the course for me, was her long, perhaps unplanned soliloquy on nitrates in cured foods. Meredith took me from my comfortable seat of “no nitrates, no cancer” to “use nitrates, don’t die of botulism”:) One of the participants also asked her about all of the “nitrate free” products you can now get, why not just make our artisan, organic, pasture raised pork salami with the “nitrate free” stuff?
The truth is, “nitrate free” has an *…which says except those naturally occurring in celery (or other vegetables that naturally contain nitrates). Meredith explained that not only do these “nitrate free” products contain the exact same compound (sodium nitrite) they often contain more of it due to the nature of how they are manufactured from their vegetable origin! Meredith’s recommendation was use the curing salt (nitrates) in their correct proportions, use your cell phone less and you’ll live longer:)
If you’d like to read more about the truth about “nitrate free” foods check out this Washington Post Article.
If you’d like to read more about the heath implications of nitrates in foods check out this BBC Article.
I arrived back at this research as we began the journey of changing how we do business: online store, home delivery and working with other USDA slaughter houses to help us process our 100% Grass Fed Beef and Pastured Pork. Many of our slaughter houses offer a “nitrate free” cure for their smoked products like Bacon, Kielbasa, or Chorizo. This “nitrate free” process costs up to $1 more per pound. And while it has a nice ring to boast that we offer “nitrate free” products, it seems deceptive to me to charge more for a product that potentially contains more nitrates than it’s synthetic counterparts! So we don’t.
If the risk of nitrates is concerning to you there are a few things you can do:
- The formation of Nitrosamine happens at high temperatures, so try cooking your bacon in the oven, 350-400 for 20 minutes (depending on desired crisp). This avoids the higher temperatures of a fry pan.
- Just eat it raw! Most foods that contain nitrates have been cooked and are safe to eat. Try our Pork Kielbasa or Beef Kielbasa sliced on a sandwich or in your salad!
- Get the raw product and make it at home. We hope to offer fresh pork belly for those who want to make their own bacon soon!
We continue to learn every day. Please let us know what you have learned about food, nitrates or farming.
4 thoughts on “Nitrates & Nitrites: Know Your Food”
You wrote an amazing article for someone with I am only guessing minimal chemistry. We have been very aware of nitrosamines for 30 years and their potential for causing cancer. I always enjoy your letters but this one is spot on. Another plus to baking the bacon is lack of grease all over the stove. Thanks,