They're added to nearly every processed meat product sold in the U.S. today – nitrites and other synthetic curing chemicals that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says are safe to use for keeping meat products from spoiling too quickly.
But an investigation by researchers from the University of Wisconsin has uncovered that, despite years of denial, the FDA has known since at least the 1970s that nitrites cause cancer, and yet continues to pander to the meat industry in allowing their use.
Meat curing has been around forever, with the historical record showing that this process allowed ancient cultures to preserve meats for extended periods of time, especially during periods of food scarcity. People didn't have refrigerators back then, remember, so they had to come up with novel ways of food preservation that would get them through harsh weather conditions and other volatile environmental factors.
The fact that people have been curing meats since time immemorial isn't necessarily a problem. Salt, after all, is a natural curing agent that, in and of itself, isn't harmful. It's when salt is transformed through synthetic chemical alterations – in this case, as nitrites – that it becomes harmful. And these same nitrites, according to independent scientists, have been the subject of intense debate over the years concerning their safety.
Sodium nitrite linked to leukemia, cancer
Sodium nitrite, one of the most popular curing chemicals found in processed meat products today, contains certain nitroso compounds that, under the right conditions, can transform into cancer-causing nitrosamines. Even at the time when sodium nitrite was first offered up for commercial approval in the 1970s, it was recognized that nitrosamines come with serious health risks, including the threat of leukemia and other forms of cancer.
The debate over whether or not to approve sodium nitrite in the 1970s was centered around the chemical's known carcinogenicity, and the fact that other, safer curing compounds were already readily available. Nitrite opponents did what they could to present sound science that highlighted all this, which they believed would win the FDA over in rejecting sodium nitrite in favor of safer alternatives.
But the FDA ultimately capitulated to the meat lobby, which saw dollar signs rather than people's health as being the priority. Synthetic nitrites, after all, are cheap to produce, they preserve the inherent color and flavor of meats, and most people don't even know they're there – unless, of course, they develop a serious health condition as a result of consuming them.
Naturally-occurring nitrites aren't harmful
Not to be confused with naturally-occurring nitrites, which aid in the body's normal regulation of blood pressure, immune response and more, synthetic nitrites have an almost opposite effect on the body, damaging the normal function of hemoglobin and possibly even causing brain damage, particularly in young people.
"Nitrite changes the normal function of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood to the rest of the body, into a form called methemoglobin that cannot carry oxygen," explains the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Sciences.
"In severe, untreated cases, brain damage and eventually death can result from suffocation due to lack of oxygen."
Dietary nitrites, on the other hand, offer many protective benefits, including their ability to spur production of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide helps regulate blood pressure, boost immunity, aid in wound repair, and improve neurological function, among other benefits.
"[T]he normal production of nitric oxide and nitrite may prevent various types of cardiovascular disease including hypertension, atherosclerosis, and stroke," explains the University of Wisconsin report.
This is why purchasing only nitrite-free meats, or meats that contain only naturally-occurring nitrites from vegetables like celery, is critical for your long-term health. Reading food labels and making smart purchasing decisions will go a long way in protecting you and your family against cancer and other forms of chronic illness.