Impact Investigates Food Production: Nitrates in Bacon and Ham Production

Following scientific intervention and political influence in a campaign, companies producing meats such as bacon and ham have been asked to reduce or entirely remove nitrites from the meats they produce.

What are nitrites?

Nitrites or nitrates (NO2 or NO3) are formally known as by-product of ammonia oxidation (where the oxidation state of an atom are altered), and this normally occurs in nature through use of the bacteria known as Nitrosomonas. It is normally found in food and water and is colourless and odourless.

Loss of an oxygen atom in nitrates leads to the formation of nitric oxide. This causes dilation of the blood vessels and the reduction of the blood pressure. Within the body, nitrates and nitrites circulate the body removing pathogenic bacteria, such as Salmonella.

Nitrates are being used by athletes to enhance physical performative, particularly in high intensity exercise as they increase the efficiency of mitochondria within our cells in releasing energy.

The British Meat Processors Association has stated that nitrites are used in the curing of meats – acting as a preservative and adding flavour. They are often used for the enhancement of colour. However, the European Food Safety Authority has stated that consumer exposure to nitrites was within safe levels, expect for children whereby their diets were found to consist of a large proportion of this food.

“MPs and doctors argued that the consumption of nitrites is not an issue.”

MPs and doctors argued that the consumption of nitrites is not an issue, but the formation of nitrosamines produced is.

Nitrosamines are formed or added to cured meats and are metabolites (substances necessary for metabolism in the body). Not all cured meats contain nitrosamines, although among them the more significant one with a higher concentration is fried bacon. Nitrosamines are also found in cigarette smoke, and are a well-known carcinogen, thus its quantity is restricted in the curing process. Dimethyl and diethyl nitrosamines are known to cause caners, while dibutylnitrosamines cause bladder cancer.

They emphasised the risk of using these chemicals within processing leading to increased risk of colorectal cancer. They further added to this argument following research from Glasgow University which suggested that consumption of processed meat may lead to an increased risk of breast cancer.

“Processed meat is any meat which has been modified in order to extend its shelf life or to enhance its flavour.”

Processed meat is any meat which has been modified in order to extend its shelf life or to enhance its flavour. This can be done in various methods such as smoking, curing, salt, preservatives, pickling. Examples of which include sausages, bacon, salami, hot dogs and beef jerky.

The campaign asked the government for a public awareness campaign similar to that of the sugar and fatty food campaign in order to raise general public awareness to the dangers of nitrites.

The campaign is aided by Professor Chris Elliot , the same food scientist who campaigned against the horse-meat scandal along with Dr. Aseem Malhotra, a leading NHS cardiologist.

In contrast, a spokesperson of the British Meat Processors Association states that nitrites aided in hindering the growth of microbrials in the body and prevented botulism (a serious form of food poisoning). This in part can be seen as true as evidence has been shown in which nitrites have been proven to prevent the growth of a hazardous bacterium known as Clostridium botulinum.

Inga Becker-Hansen

Articles used:

Basic Water Quality Evaluation for Zoo Veterinarians

Andrew Stamper, Kent J. Semmen, in Fowler’s Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine, 2012

Advances in Radiation Biology– C.L. Greenstock, in Advances in Radiation Biology, 1984

NITROSAMINES-R.A. Scanlan, in Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition), 2003

Toxicology of DNA Adducts Formed Upon Human Exposure to Carcinogens- K.A. Wilson, … S.D. Wetmore, in Advances in Molecular Toxicology,2016

Featured image courtesy of Didriks via Flickr, no changes made to the image. Image licence can be found here.

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