Mo’ Nitrates

A lot of people for whom personal health is paramount in importance — and who carefully manage their risk factors so they can accumulate a surplus of joyless, vacant years for their dotage — believe that nitrates are to be avoided at all costs. I started to write a post wherein I posit a few facts that I already knew about nitrogen-centered ions á la this post by Michael Ruhlman, and then feel real smart and smug, leaving health fanatics to cry into their resveratrol supplement bottles. But then it turned out that Ruhlman had already sort of written that post for the internet. And really, how much more minimally-researched ranting does the internet need?

So I started doing some research, which is a dangerous thing for a Gangster, since that shit not only takes up a lot of time that I could be using  to pop caps into your prosciutto (ass! Get it?), it often turns out that I’m not as smart as I think I am. And that shit pisses me off. Then things get all confusing and outrageous and I get all confused and outraged and then… and then…

And then nitrate and nitrite are ions. That’s why people talk about “nitrates” —as in, “Oh those nitrates, you know they don’t belong in our bodies”— because the chemical added to foods is actually one of several salts of which nitrate or nitrite is only one half. Potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, and potassium nitrite are the old fashioned ones, rarely used on this side of the Atlantic anymore. Nowadays sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite are the most common. But the sodium or potassium part aren’t what’s important— when mixed with wet meat the ions disassociate, and what we want is the nitrate or nitrite part. If the meat is to be cured quickly, like bacon or smoked sausage, we generally start with nitrite (cure #1 or modern cure), since it works much more quickly. If it will spend a while drying out at ambient temperatures we generally start with a mix of nitrate and nitrite (cure #2) for long lasting protection.

Nitrate is NO3- in chemistry parlance. That means there’s three oxygen atoms per nitrogen atom and the whole bit has a negative charge because it has more electrons than it wants to have. It would much rather be paired up with that sodium so it could offload some of that negative charge and gain some stability. Isn’t that romantic? Alas, we need it roaming around lonely and unbalanced so that a dentrifying bacteria can come along and reduce it even further to nitrite or NO2-. By reduction I don’t mean that the bacteria cooked the nitrate ions down into a velvety, rich demi glace for its lamb chops (metabolic raw materials); I mean that it lost an oxygen atom. Some people say cooking is chemistry; here we see that chemistry is a lot simpler than cooking.

Dentrification is something you might have learned about in biology class if you paid any attention. That’s the process whereby large nitrogen ions are eventually reduced to dinitrogen gas or N2 by bacteria. The dentrification step before that  sees the still-unbalanced nitrite ion being reduced to nitric oxide gas (NO), and that’s where the magic happens.

Muscle cells contain a pigment called myoglobin that has an iron atom at its center. Biologists apparently call this the binding site because that’s what oxygen sticks to. But, nitric oxide also sticks to myoglobin, and doesn’t let go. The molecule now goes by the clever moniker “nitric oxide myoglobin.” No fucking shit. It also doesn’t allow the myoglobin to degrade to the sickly brown of metmyoglobin, the pigment of old meat.

While critics of nitrate-treated meat often cry that this is the only real benefit of curing meat (besides, you know, preventing botulism, whatevs), you and I know that nasty brown vinegar-braised beef peddled as corned beef at natural markets is not what you want on a reuben. We want that vigor! That snap of nitric oxide myoglobin! Unfortunately, the scientists don’t seem real interested in figuring out why it tastes better, or I just don’t feel like looking very hard. I’m pretty sure it’s because oxidized foods generally suck, and nitric oxide prevents oxidation of the myoglobin. That’s my hypothesis. Let’s test that out:

“Ring Ring!”

“Hello, New Seasons Market.”

“Hi, how’s your nitrate-free bacon?”

“Fucking sucks, tastes like old spare ribs.”

“Great, peace.”

That dentrification we were talking about before, that sort of occurs in our own bodies which produce (endogenously, as the scientists like to say) nitrate and then reduce it to nitrite and nitric oxide and then recycle it to produce nitrate again. Which not only means that we’re full of nitrates, but that we have the metabolic pathways and bacterial colonies to strip nitrate down to nitric oxide. And it turns out that we consume plenty of nitrates every day whether we indulge in salami and bacon, or are strictly vegetarian. Matter of fact, turns out that vegetarians might consume more nitrate than anybody, since vegetables contain loads of it.

Celery, beets, carrots, spinach are especially rich in nitrate, and nitrate-free meat manufacturers take advantage of that fact to “cure” their meats without putting nitrates on the ingredient list. Manufacturers favored nitrate sources are celery juice or powder and beet concentrate, beet also being the favored nitrate source for modern-day Hans and Franz’s to increase vasodilation for big pumps. Cook’s Illustrated sent some bacon off to a lab for analysis a couple of years ago  (subscription required, two week trial is free) and found the nitrate-free products to contain more nitrite (and plenty of nitrate) than their conventional counterparts. New Seasons Market, to their great credit, engages in no such chicanery.

So why don’t vegetarians all drop dead from cancer? Good question. Because nitrates aren’t what causes cancer, it’s a class of chemicals called nitrosamines or n-nitroso compounds. And this is the real deal, the carcinogens in tobacco are nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are formed when the nitrite reacts with the amines (components of amino acids) in meat, facilitated by exposure to high heat, like the heat of frying bacon (tha’s why I like my shit chewy). However, in response to concerns about the carcinogenic potential of previously benign hot dogs and bacon, the FDA both limited the amount of nitrite that can be added to cured meats to 120 ppm and mandated that all cure mixes contain an antioxidant such as ascorbic acid (scary name right?— vitamin C), alpha-tocopherol (Even scarier!— vitamin E) or erythorbic acid (related to ascorbic acid, cheaper) which have been shown to inhibit nitrosamine formation.

Crazy right? What’s even crazier is that nitrosamines are found all over: cheese, beer, dehydrated milk, stomach acid…. Yes, your own stomach is trying to give you cancer. So how did nitrosamines in meat get singled out as being especially detrimental to human health? If you ask me, I’d just say it’s the vegetarian conspiracy that tries to bust up my daily meat party, but you probably want a more informed answer. And it turns out that that answer isn’t boring as fuck, it’s actually more fascinating than my party.

Since Wikipedia’s writers have absolutely no problem plagiarizing whatever they find on the internet to “write” their articles, I can just C&P this:

Christopher Hill v Ashington Piggeries

Ashington Piggeries devised a recipe for mink feed, contracting in 1960 with Christopher Hill to supply ingredients and compound them. The food was marketed under the name “King Size”. At first, there were no problems, but in February 1961 Christopher Hill entered into a contract with Norwegian company Sildemelutvalget to supply Norwegian herring meal rather than the herring meal previously used.

As you can guess: the Norwegian company preserved their herring meal with nitrite, dimethylnitrosamine was formed, and mink started dropping dead from… liver failure. This incredibly credible seeming gentleman at Oregon State University (GO BEAVERS!) claims that “various” farm animals came down with a variety of gut illnesses, including cancer, a decade later in Norway.

So researchers started looking at it, and when researchers start looking you know they will find. Am I accusing Science of having a confirmation bias? No. I’m just saying that I’m surrounded by, nay built of, carcinogens. That said, there does seem to be some epidemiological evidence that a diet high in “processed meats” leads to “higher all-cause mortality,” and you know that’s bad. I’ve read elsewhere that the epidemiological evidence is weak, but this meta-metastudy states that the correlation between colorectal cancer and cured meat is very strong and that the nitrosamine hypothesis is just one of many, including that the meat itself could be made toxic through the curing process. Goddamn savages just want strip every small happiness from an otherwise meaningless existence.

What I don’t know (and don’t care to find out at this point) is what is meant by the term “processed meat,” as some of these studies seem to include ground beef. They certainly include dried hams, many of which are made without nitrate. And how the fuck is that? This guy (and if you just read one article about dry cured ham, this should be it) says that the pink color of prosciutto is due to bacterial metabolic processes, but Harold McGee says that it’s unlikely that bacteria are the main factor since the inside of a ham is a surprisingly sterile environment. My point being, is prosciutto a processed meat, or not? Do you have to assault your guts with Vienna Sausages and Hormel potted meat product in order for them to retaliate by killing you in what must be an agonizing way?

Or is processed meat consumption just a lifestyle indicator, hopelessly entwined with confounding variables? Remember resveratrol? Oh, you still think that’s why red wine drinkers have reduced heart disease risk. Yeah, most of the reduced risk is shared by beer and spirit drinkers as well. That’s your affluence keeping you alive.

And so we are left with a seeming paradox: nitrosamines cause cancer, but we’re only getting very small  (probably negligible) amounts of nitrosamine from cured meat. Still, several epidemiological studies show a correlation specifically between processed meat consumption and a variety of illnesses of the gut. Eaters on the hedonistic end of the scale get behind the first fact, those on the health fanatic end champion the latter. Of course, as that R. L. Santarelli et al. study makes clear, there are several possible causal links between processed meat consumption and cancer risk besides nitrosamines. And in any case, as much as people who like to regularly geek out on this science shit tout the double-blind randomized study as the golden standard, and the only one that can be trusted, that’s not always feasible for studying long term health outcomes in human beings. Right, you fucking sociopaths? That’s the kind of doubt that food industry lobbyists exploit to pry a relaxed regulatory environment for their employer’s products.

But this study states, in no uncertain terms, that feeding rats cured meat products increases the incidence of precancerous lesions of the colon, you wily Gangster. True, but it also says that you can reduce your risk of getting said lesions by intake of calcium carbonate, aka lime. Takeaway? Wash down sausages and ham with plenty of delicious mineral water. And what luck, DIY mineral water will be the subject of my next post.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *