When thinking, working, and reading about food, it is thought I have a purely chef-like background, but my education also includes a biochemistry degree. I love the preparing and cooking of food, but I also have an extensive scientific background which gives me another perspective. I read various viewpoints on food. I do not judge until I run it through the filter of both tested hypotheses in the kitchen and straight scientific fact. When I heard that there was recent talk of comparing the nitrates in vegetable matter and the nitrates in cured meats such as commercially produced ham or bacon, scientific doubt set in.
Nitrates in vegetable matter occur from the plant’s root system absorbing the nitrogenous matter in the soil. It fixes the nitrogen into either sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate, depending on the individual plant. The human body converts sodium nitrate into nitrites, which has been linked to various anti-oxidizing benefits, to the reduction of blood pressure via the increased dilation of vasculature and the reduction of symptoms linked to Type 2 diabetes.
Nitrates in cured meats such as ham or bacon, although called sodium nitrate, is actually an erroneous term. It is, chemically speaking, a nitrite. When the human body has to metabolize sodium nitrite, the resulting metabolite is actually a form of nitric acid, which has a much more caustic effect on the body’s muscles and tissues. By having a literally destructive effect on muscles and tissues, over time, nitrite consumption can be linked to various forms of colorectal cancers and other cancers in general, as well as an increased risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, so directly the opposite effect.
To equate nitrates in vegetable manner to those in cured meats is a simple matter of misunderstanding of terminology. This misleading terminology can be strictly attributed to large commercial operations preying on the ignorance of much of the inspection processes involved. Many jobs in food inspection require a 1-year certificate program and even the most educated of individuals do not have extensive knowledge of organic chemistry. Many commercial operations employ biochemists to be able to find such holes in the system to find additives that can speed up their production. Speeding up production creates more product in a shorter time which makes the business more money. Nitrite usage simplifies the curing process as well so it requires less technical talent to produce, reducing overall cost to the company even more.
The key to take from this is not to eliminate cured meats entirely from your diet, but to know how your curing is done. Curing without nitrites occurred for centuries without detrimental effects. Commercial nitrite usage is relatively recent. I, personally, eat cured meats sparingly, but I take the time to research how an individual producer processes its meat. There are non-nitrite options available from small producers and Old World butchers, but it is becoming a dying art because the larger commercial operations are replacing them.
For further reading on the differences between nitrates and nitrites see here
To read more on the education of food inspectors see here
For a selection of my own personal favourite, local supplier of no-nitrite cured meats see here