Nitrates in “No Nitrate Added” Meats


Q: You have stated that cured meats that say ‘no nitrate or nitrite added’ still contain these potentially cancer-causing compounds. Can you please explain this?

A: Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, Stanley N. Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science

and Policy at the Friedman School and executive editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, answers: “Adding nitrates or nitrites to meat or poultry keeps it from turning brown, gives it the ‘cured meat’ flavor we’re accustomed to, and kills bacteria. Nitrates themselves are not harmful, but they can be turned into nitrites in the body. Nitrites can be converted to nitric oxide (which is good) or nitrosamines (which increase cancer risk). The presence of high amounts of nitrates and nitrites in cured meats (like bacon, ham, hot dogs, and deli meats, including turkey) is likely one of the reasons consumption of these products is associated with higher risk of colon cancer.

“Some manufactures stopped adding synthetic nitrates/nitrites to their processed meats to meet consumer demand for healthier products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) required these products be clearly marked ‘Uncured’ and ‘No Nitrate or Nitrite Added.’ In 2019, a study by Consumer Reports found nitrates and nitrites in these ‘uncured’ products at levels similar to those in meats prepared with synthetic curing agents. These manufacturers were using natural sources of nitrates, including celery juice powder, beet juice powder, carrot juice concentrate, and sea salt. While naturally-occuring nitrates are not harmful at the levels they are found in foods like celery and beets, they are not chemically different from synthetic forms once they are extracted and concentrated.

“In response to complaints, the USDA has said it will prohibit the ‘No Nitrate or Nitrite Added’ label on products using any source of nitrates or nitrites. It will still be up to the consumer to check ingredient lists for sources of naturally occurring nitrates/nitrites.”


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