I was excited to see that a local organic meat supplier has some new nitrite-free deli items for sale. It seemed perfect: a reputable family farm that does everything right (organic and grass-fed, pasture roaming, natural breeding, etc.) comes up with carcinogen-free deli meat?

So I can have the quick easy lunch that lets me regale in the simple salami sandwich of my youth and not get cancer!

Nitrites (NO2) and their cousin nitrates (NO3) are used as a preservative in cured meats to prevent botulism. They give salami, hot dogs and bacon a longer shelf life and that reddish colour that we tend to associate with “fresh”.

The problem is that nitrates, which convert to nitrites in our digestive tract, were linked to cancer in children back in the 1980s.

Nitrites can also occur naturally in certain foods, such as celery. But for some reason, these nitrites are not found to be carcinogenic. Perhaps this is due to the detoxifying vitamin C that celery also contains.

Chatting with a chef-friend yesterday, I was assured that you cannot cure meat without nitrites. It’s “simply part of the process.” She says that if you are curing meats in your basement for family use, for example, you might get away with not using nitrites. If you get botulism, it’s your own fault. But if you’re selling the meat, and exposing yourself to potential lawsuits, you use nitrites, also called pink or curing salt.

So then how are meat suppliers making their nitrite-free meats? Apparently, many replace nitrites with celery juice or celery powered extract, which —as mentioned— contain nitrites.

Personally, I do not feel the label “nitrite-free” in this case is accurate, or perhaps even ethical. After all, nitrites are still in there. The only difference is that no one picked up a container of  pink salt and poured it in. They simple added an ingredient that contains naturally-occurring nitrites. Perhaps a more honest label would be “no nitrites added”?

It remains to be seen if “nitrite-free” deli meats are less carcinogenic that regular deli meats. It is possible that the celery makes a difference.

The trick, I think, is to eat these treats in moderation. If it’s local and organic, I’m not cutting it from my diet. But I will, perhaps, make an effort to enjoy them in the traditional French charcuterie style, i.e. with a few vitamin C containing vegetables on the side.



Leave a Response