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A group of cross-party MPs and leading food scientists are calling on the government to ban the use of nitrates in the UK.
Although the chemical is widely used in bacon, charcuterie and other processed meats, research studies have linked it to the development of bowel, breast and prostate cancers.
Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Safety at Queen’s University Belfast, explained, “Nitrites are found in many foods and can be perfectly harmless. But when they are used to cure bacon, and that bacon is then cooked and ingested, they produce carcinogenic nitrosamines in the stomach.”
But should the government ban a chemical that is so essential to creating some of the nation’s favourite foods?
The case for nitrates
As a preserving agent, nitrates ensure that the product has a decent shelf life, preventing food waste, but they also stop the growth of dangerous bacteria.
Glen Burrows, co-founder of The Ethical Butcher, explained, “We use nitrates in our bacon and sausages. The bacon we sell is processed offsite so if we didn’t use nitrates, we would have very little shelf life by the time the product got to us from the processor.
“We make our own sausages but this is a labour-intensive process and we would need to be making batches every day if we did a nitrate-free mix.”
James Santillo, co-owner of Sunday Charcuterie, said, “We use nitrates in the making of all our minced ‘salami’ products as the research shows that the risks of not using it greatly outweigh the risks of using it.
“That risk is botulism. Botulism bacteria, whilst rare, releases a toxin that is one the deadliest foodborne pathogens. The name botulism comes from the Latin word for sausage – Botulus, this is literally a sausage disease and the use of nitrates is the way we can ensure that this toxin is eradicated.”
Therefore, there is a strong case for the use of nitrates to keep food safe from harmful bacteria and extend shelf life.
While nitrates aren’t harmful, as Marc Smith, managing director at Smith & Ellis, explained, “When we eat meat (or any other food) that contains nitrites, they can be modified by our own body into something called nitrosamines – and these are what have recently been classified as ‘dangerous’. Nitrosamines can increase the risk of cancer if eaten in large quantities and this risk increases further if the meat is cooked very well (very brown and crispy).”
However, Glen argued, “Nitrites are produced by your own body in greater amounts than can be obtained from food, and salivary nitrite accounts for 70-90% of our total nitrite exposure. In other words, your spit contains far more nitrites than anything you could ever eat.
“Vegetables contain more naturally-occurring nitrites than processed meats like bacon. In fact, one serving of rocket contains more nitrites than 467 hot dogs. The consequences would be more wasted food and potentially dangerous pathogens entering our food system.”
As Marc put it, “The highest nitrates level was found in asparagus, but I haven’t seen anyone calling for a ban on asparagus yet.”
James added, “I feel if the government want to ban chemicals that are bad for our health a safer place to start would be nicotine which had been proven for decades to be a major cause of cancer and as a part of this debate has zero safety benefits, but there’s probably too much tax money at stake and is also a divisive subject that best left to the ‘experts’.”
The alternatives to nitrates
According to Glen, “We can use salt and sugar cures to replace nitrates, we can also trick the legislation by using ’natural cures’ such as celery salt or smoking that contain nitrates but really, in my opinion, the ban is unnecessary.”
But by using these natural alternatives, James argues that it potentially causes more problems. He explained, “You will occasionally find the inclusion of celery or celery juice in recipes and in the production of nitrate-free bacon and ham, so whilst these are technically nitrate-free they do in fact contain nitrates.
“However, with celery, you are adding one of the 14 notifiable allergens to your production which will add another layer of possible food safety issues.”