Sodium nitrates and nitrites are typically added during meat processing for several reasons. First, it preserves the meat, meaning that meats last longer or, in some cases, do not have to be refrigerated. This decreases the perishability of the meats, meaning that they can be sold, bought, and stored for days, weeks and sometimes months longer than fresh meats. Second, nitrates and nitrites are added to foods to boost flavor and add color to processed meats (i.e. red/pink coloring in hot dogs). Products that contain sodium nitrates/nitrites include commercial production and processing of the following items:
- Beef jerky
- Hot dogs
- Luncheon meat
- Meat in frozen pizzas, canned soups, frozen meals (anything that can last)
- Red meat in many commercial restaurants, public schools, hospitals and hotels
These two compounds are highly controversial, as there is conflicting evidence regarding its cancer-causing components and contribution to cardiovascular disease. Many state health departments warn against the dangers of sodium nitrates and nitrites in its pure form (then used for color fixatives and meat preservation), as they are associated with migraines, allergies, fatigue, trouble breathing, and irritation. Yet, the USDA and FDA deems these products safe, as long as the amount of nitrates and nitrites are regulated, and do not exceed a certain percentage of the product.
A few tips to decrease meat consumption with nitrates and nitrites:
- Read labels! Know how much sodium nitrate/nitrite is in the foods you buy. Limit the amounts of processed meats you consume.
- Buy raw, fresh meat and roast it at home. Meat can be sliced with a meat slicer and stored in the refrigerator or freezer. This won't have any of the preservatives found in processed meat, and can still be used on sandwiches, as main courses, or as snacks.
- Make healthy meatless protein substitutions for processed meat, such as hummus, peanut butter, cheese and beans.
At Skinny Mom, we like to use Applegate Organic and Natural fresh meats for quick lunches on our busiest days. Check out Applegate's FAQ page regarding the brand's GMO, animal treatment and antibiotic policies.
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Get the skinny on other dangerous food additives by reading Food Labels Translated: 10 Alarming Ingredients to Avoid!