Salami. Bologna. Sausage. Chorizo. Bacon.
These are all examples of cured meats.
The process of curing meat prolongs the shelf life. It also prevents meat from turning gray. In ancient times, people cured meat mostly by adding salt and ash from dead plants. But in the 1920s, food manufacturers started using synthetic curing agents known as nitrites.
Nitrites aren’t necessarily harmful. In fact, vegetables contain these naturally-occurring chemical compounds.
But when meat is cured with synthetic nitrites, it can cause health problems. In fact, in 2015, the World Health Organization classified bacon and other cured meats as a group 1 carcinogen. In other words, bacon causes cancer, especially cancers relating to the GI tract, i.e. colon.
Hot dogs and other cured meats may be the worst offenders. That’s because when exposed to high temperatures and the flame of the grill, nitrites create carcinogenic substances.
Since the 2015 media focus on the cancer-causing effects of red meat and cured meats, several food companies have introduced lines of uncured meats or meats with no nitrites or nitrates added.
However, in 2019, the Center for Science In the Public Interest and Consumer Reports sent a petition to the US Department of Agriculture. The petition requested that the agency put a stop to the misleading labeling of uncured meat.
The deception stems from the fact that the labels that say “no nitrites added” meat include the disclaimer: except from naturally-occuring celery juice and sea salt.
While it may seem that celery juice is far healthier than synthetic nitrites, when it comes to the cancer-causing effects of grilling or blackening meat, nitrites are nitrites. Consumer Reports tested the amount of nitrites in uncured meat and found that the levels of nitrites were virtually the same as cured meats.
(Raw celery juice itself does not contain harmful nitrites; celery juice is turned into a nitrite-containing powder after a starter culture bacteria is added.)
Consumer Reports tested 31 packaged deli meats (another example of cured meat), including chicken, turkey, ham, roast beef, and salami. “Deli meats carrying these labels pose the same health risks as traditionally cured meats because the nitrate and nitrite levels are essentially the same,” said a senior policy analyst with Consumer Reports in the press release issued from 2019. That same year, Consumer Reports conducted a survey of 1,000 shoppers. Nearly half of them responded that they look for the no nitrates added label when purchasing deli meats.
This misleading labeling has been banned by the European Union but remains legal in the US.