Sodium nitrite, which is commonly used in a variety of cured meats from bacon to deli meats to hot dogs, is one of the most misunderstood ingredients in meat and poultry products and other foods, but a new Media MythCrusher document from the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) aims to correct many of the myths.
While media reports often describe sodium nitrite as a “known carginogen,” a two-year, U.S. National Toxicology Program animal feeding study concluded that nitrite does not cause cancer at levels used in the meat industry. It is also a myth that cured meat products are the most common source of nitrite in our diets. Scientists say that 93 percent of human nitrite intake comes from vegetables, particularly root vegetables such as celery, beets, carrots, spinach and lettuce, and from saliva, thanks to the body’s own healthy, nitrogen cycle. Less than five percent of human nitrite intake is sourced to cured meats.
“Nitrite is a very important ingredient with significant and proven food safety benefits,” said Betsy Booren, Ph.D., NAMI vice president of scientific affairs. “Nitrite is critical in preventing botulism, the deadliest foodborne illness. In fact, since sodium nitrite was approved for use in cured meats in 1925, no cases of botulism have been associated with commercially prepared cured meats.”
The Media MythCrusher also explains that meats cured “naturally” still rely on a form of nitrite (nitrate) that occurs naturally in ingredients such as celery powder and this fact is noted on the front of the package and in the ingredient statement.
“Nitrite’s benefits are now recognized in treating many medical conditions including preventing preeclampsia during pregnancy, promoting wound healing, controlling blood pressure, and helping with successful organ transplantation,” said Dr. Booren. She stated that some well-known pharmaceuticals work by delivering nitric oxide, which the body creates from nitrite, to specific body tissues.
The new MythCrusher document supplements the library of several Meat MythCrusher videos on nitrite use in cured meats produced by NAMI and the American Meat Science Association.
The Meat Institute has also developed similar Media MythCrusher documents addressing myths about antibiotic use in animals, bacteria on fresh meat and the environmental impact of meat production. All of these resources are available on the Meat Institute fact sheet page.