Sodium Nitrites And Cancer

Sodium nitrite is typically used as an additive to to lunch meat, sausage, hot dogs and ham to inhibit growth of bacteria. Additionally, sodium nitrite helps create the commonly known flavor and pink coloration of cured meats. Besides its elevated sodium content, the additive itself isn’t a real issue. The concern is that nitrites can combine with components of protein, known as amines, to form nitrosamines, which cause cancer in laboratory animals. But while never proved to be the cause of cancer in humans, diets high in cured and other processed meats have long been coupled to stomach and other cancers.

Keeping it in perspective

While scientists suspect that nitrosamines lend themselves to cancer and other health concerns in people who consume a lot of processed meats, other dietary, lifestyle, or genetic factors may be involved also. Or something else about these foods could be responsible, such as their high sodium content, which may make the lining of the stomach specifically susceptible to carcinogens. Moreover, cured meat is only one source of our exposure to nitrites, and a small one, scientists say. And nitrites, which are also produced in the body, even have health benefits, including the ability to kill adverse bacteria in the intestines and increase nitric oxide, a substance that relaxes blood vessels.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government limits the amount of nitrites permitted in processed meats to keep nitrosamines low. And thanks to improved preservation techniques, cured meats today have only one-fifth of what they did in the seventies. Manufacturers also add ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or sodium erythorbate (related to vitamin C), which speeds curing and reduces conversion of nitrites to nitrosamines.

What to do

There’s no concrete evidence that the tiny amounts of nitrite-cured meat frequently consumed by Americans or Canadians pose a significant health risk. Still, moderation is an excellent idea.

Eat cured and other processed meats, especially bacon, but do so only occasionally. They shouldn’t be part of your everyday diet regardless, since they are high in salt and fat. Focus more on lower fat and lower sodium versions. Your medical professional can help you to identify foods that would be smarter choices. If you are brand new to your home town, there are actually a good deal of excellent medical directories that may help you find the right specialist for your needs.

Consume smoked foods, including smoked fish, and do so also in moderation. They are often cured prior to smoking and also have other potential carcinogens from the smoking process. 

Eat foods abundant in vitamin c and other antioxidants. Amongst their numerous positive aspects, they may help minimize nitrosamine development.

Meats labeled “naturally cured” or “uncured” are available in health food stores and various grocery stored. Rather than sodium nitrite, manufacturers often use beet or celery juice, salt, honey, and other natural ingredients to achieve properties similar to nitrite-cured meat, though these products lend themselves to having shorter shelf lives. Regulations prohibit the use of sodium nitrite in USDA Certified organic meat products. 

Source: Maria Faires, Personal Trainer & Dietitian

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