As an unabashed lover of cured meats, I've always lived in denial of the nitrate/cancer warnings. Partially because my taste buds just weren't willing to give up bacon, pancetta, prosciutto, breasola, cappicola or other deli delicacies. But more so because the warnings never made sense to me. After all, charcuterie has been around for some 6,000 years as a pre -refrigeration way of preserving meats. Salting, smoking and curing meats seemed natural enough to me -- and since lots of other foods contain nitrates and/or nitrites, I wasn't sure why meat was being singled out as the "bad" source.
Still, now and then I'd go out of my way to get nitrate-free products. And generally, the results were somewhere between " meh" and " blecchh" as far as taste went. Nitrate-free hot dogs practically brought me to tears.
Enter Sandy Szwarc of Junkfood Science to alleviate my grief. She has a wonderful post that debunks the "there is no safe level of processed meats" warnings we've been hearing since the '70's. The link to her full post is below, but here's a snippet to whet your appetite:
In 1981, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the scientific literature and found no link between nitrates or nitrites and human cancers, or evidence to even suggest that they’re carcinogenic. Since then, more than 50 studies and multiple international scientific bodies have investigated a possible link between nitrates and cancers and mortality in humans and found no association.
What may be more surprising to learn is that scientific evidence has been building for years that nitrates are actually good for us, that nitrite is produced by our own body in greater amounts than is eaten in food, and that it has a number of essential biological functions, including in healthy immune and cardiovascular systems. Nitrite is appearing so beneficial, it’s even being studied as potential treatments for health problems such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, sickle cell disease and circulatory problems.
Some other interesting facts from her post:
Nitrate, from any dietary source, does not accumulate in our body. Nor does nitrite.
70-97% of our total nitrite exposure comes from our own spit.
The primary source of nitrite on our diets comes from vegetables.
In order to ingest a lethal dose of sodium nitrite, you'd have to eat between 2,222-4,444 hot dogs in one sitting.
There is no evidence that nitrates or nitrites cause cancer in animals or humans.
I advise reading the rest of her post while munching on some Genoa salami and a nice hunk of pate -- or a big ol' nasty hot dog. Just skip the bun.
PS: Okay, hot dogs. I know, I know. There are lots of other nasties in hot dogs. I managed to find, in my local grocery store, something called "European Wieners". If you're anything like me, "European wiener" immediately brings to mind Jude Law, whose wiener- ness would still not prevent me from taking him home should I find him available on my grocers' shelf. But the wieners I'm speaking of are not nanny-diddling rapscallions who need a firm spanking. These are hot dogs in a natural sheep casing that do not contain gluten, MSG, soy, lactose or anything other than pork, seasoning and the curing stuff. Very tasty.