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Nitrates and Nitrites


· Curing of meat using salts as preservatives are used for many centuries

· Curing is a process by which meat products are treated with salt, nitrite or nitrate salts or both and other curing agents to improve the colour, texture and flavour of meat and also preserve meat

· Most cured meat products are cooked and/or smoked Eg: hot dogs, loaves, bologna, bacon

· Fermented, acidified and dried meat products are uncooked and are either shelf stable or needs refrigeration. Eg: salami, pepperoni

· Nitrate/Nitrite may be added to meat in the form of sodium or potassium salts to provide desirable flavour and colour to the cured meat products

· Nitrate is reduced to Nitrite by bacterial action and in fact nitrite is the compound that is responsible for the flavour and colour in cured meats

· The mechanism of colour development in cured meat products involves conversion of nitrite to nitric oxide (NO). Nitric oxide combines with meat pigment myoglobin (myoglobin is the meat pigment responsible for red color of fresh meat) to form nitric oxide myoglobin, which is a deep red color. On cooking this nitric oxide myoglobin is converted in to nitrosylhemochrome giving cured meat its typical pink colour

· Nitrites prevent spoilage of cured meats by delaying rancidity and thus preventing off-odours and off-flavours during storage. Nitrite also inhibits warmed-over flavour.


What are the Regulations in Canada?


· A concern that cooking A concern that cooking may cause nitrite to react with the amino acids (breakdown product of proteins) to form nitrosamines, (which are carcinogenic - causes cancer) has resulted in regulations that allow maximum levels of nitrate or nitrite in cured meats.

· In Canada, the maximum total nitrate and nitrite which may be added to cured meats is 200 ppm and nitrate/nitrite is considered as Class I preservative (Food and Drug Regulations, Division 16, Table XI)

· In the case of side bacon, the maximum level of nitrate/nitrite that can be added is 120ppm

· In dry rub cured meat products on racks, a maximum level of 620 ppm of sodium nitrite salts and 1860 ppm of nitrate salts are allowed.(CFIA, Meat Hygiene Manual of Procedures)

· In slow cured meat products a combination of nitrate and nitrite is generally used and sodium nitrate at 200 ppm, may be used in addition to the nitrite salts.

· When rework in excess of 10 % is used in cured meat products a recalculation of the nitrite/nitrate input levels should include the contents in the rework as well.

· The levels of Nitrate/Nitrite levels in Canadian cured meats including dry fermented sausages and cured ham were monitored by Canadian Food inspection agency under their M104, M106 and M109 sampling plans.


Safety of Nitrites from Cured Meat Products?

· Nitrosamines are shown to be carcinogenic in laboratory animals and it may or may not cause cancer in humans.

· 85-95% of total nitrite intake in the body is as a result of ingested saliva in which a breakdown of nitrate (that are consumed through vegetables such as lettuce or through water) occurs.

· Lettuce, spinach, beets and radishes contain greater than 500 ppm of nitrates according to Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

· A vast majority of ingested nitrites are not from meat sources and cured meats contribute to less than 5% of dietary intake of nitrites.

· Beneficial effects of nitrites and nitric oxide in the body metabolism including wound healing and prevention of cancer have been widely reported.

· The National Academy of Sciences has reported after intense research that nitrate at the current levels in cured meat are only a small percentage of the total exposure to nitrosamines and eliminating them from cured meats will not have an impact on the risk of cancer.

· There are numerous other studies that indicates nitrite used at the regulated levels are safe and are not a cause for concern.

· Nitrites do not result in nitrosamine formation during normal cooking such as that involved during processing of cured meats

· In the case of bacon which are fried at high temperatures, the maximum permissible level of nitrite is low to allow formation of nitrosamines.

· Presence of curing aides such as ascorbates and erythrobates (which are commonly used today) have been found to inhibit the formation of nitrosamines in meat and also reduce the residual nitrite levels in the final product.

· During curing process, the nitrite levels dissipate and the residual level in the final product are less than 1/10th of the regulatory level of 200 ppm.

· At present there are no reasonable alternatives to use of nitrate/nitrite in meat that would provide similar or enhanced beneficial effect to nitrates/nitrites.

· The beneficial effects of nitrite due to control botulism outweigh the risk (if any) posed by presence of nitrites in cured meat.


What is the Canadian Meat Council’s Position?

· Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite at the regulated levels is necessary for both quality and safety of cured meat products.

· Science indicates that nitrite in cured meats should not be a concern.

· Public concern on the safety of nitrate/nitrite in meat should be addressed using sound science approach.

· The larger body of evidence has shown that processed meats are a healthy part of a balanced diet.