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Cured Meats and the Deal with Nitrates

If you enjoy eating bacon or ham at home, chances are good that you have come across packages labeled “uncured” and “no nitrates or nitrites added.” Generally, we all know that we should eat processed foods in moderation, and preservatives are found in cured meats like bacon and ham. What do those labels mean? How healthy are the ingredients in the hot dogs, bacon, ham, and pastrami on the menu at The Golden Pig?

Nitrate, or sodium nitrate, enabled meat preservation before refrigeration was possible. When nitrates are added to meats, it slowly degrades to nitrite in conjunction with salt, and in the process, it releases nitric oxide, which inhibits bacterial growth. This also gives the meat its characteristic flavor, scent, and red color.[1]

With whole-muscle meat, we can dry-cure it, such as with hams. The meat is dried and salt is added to bind with the moisture, preventing bacterial growth. It is also harder for bacteria to break through the cell walls of whole-muscle meat, so there is less risk of botulism than with ground meat.

Traditionally, saltpeter (sodium nitrate) was mined and concentrated. Someone figured out that certain vegetables, such as spinach, celery, and beets, are naturally high in nitrates/nitrites, and it could be concentrated. These days, nitrate/nitrite from celery can be industrially produced into a consistent commercial product. One difference between the mined and plant-derived nitrate/nitrite is that meat turns grey faster with the latter, after the package is opened. Currently, natural sources of nitrate/nitrite are considered antimicrobials and flavorings, not curing agents, per the Code of Federal Regulations. Hence, hot dogs, bacon, etc. formulated with plant-derived nitrate/nitrite must be labeled as “uncured.”[2]

Nitrates are not unhealthy; like everything else, they should be consumed in moderation. Nitrates can be used as a vasodilator to treat angina in people with coronary artery disease. Consuming too many nitrates can deoxygenate your blood. Cooking bacon at a high heat will result in nitrites mixing with amines in the meat, forming nitrosamines, a carcinogen. But, you basically would be burning your bacon.

The smoked meats at The Golden Pig begin with high quality, local meats. For the smoked meats to have the flavor and aroma we want, we have to use nitrates/nitrites of some kind. Currently, we use a mined product – Cure #1, or Pink curing salt #1 – in the hot dogs, bacon, ham, and pastrami. 6.25% is sodium nitrite, 93.75% is table salt. Commercial sodium nitrite is dyed pink so people don’t confuse it with table salt. The federal maximum allowable amount of sodium nitrite is 200 ppm, and we use 120 ppm.

Salt and spices are the only other ingredients. These meats are smoked in-house and don’t include any “liquid smoke,” which some commercial hot dogs have.

Culturally, people come to expect a certain taste, color, and texture of these processed meats. In terms of food preservation, nitrates/nitrites are not needed anymore, but they’re part of our culture. Hopefully, understanding the history of these food traditions can enhance your experience of eating hot dogs, BLTs and Reuben sandwiches at The Golden Pig!

[1] Sullivan, Gary Anthony, “Naturally cured meats: Quality, safety, and chemistry” (2001). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 12208. Date Accessed May 30, 2018.

[2] USDA FSIS, “Part 1 of 3: Use of Celery Powder and Other Natural Sources of Nitrite as Curing Agents, Antimicrobials or Flavorings.” Updated April 13, 2018. Date Accessed May 30, 2018.

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