Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists cancer as one of the leading causes of death. Sodium nitrite is a chemical used to cure meat products and has been implicated as a cancer-causing agent. If you have ever consumed cured meat, you have been exposed to this chemical. Most lunch meat, canned meat and sausage contain sodium nitrite.
Purpose of Sodium Nitrite
Sodium nitrite is a Food and Drug Administration-approved food additive. It is used to cure meats and is a preservative. In the food industry, sodium nitrite is used to give cured meat its pinkish color, increase its shelf life and inhibit the growth of the bacteria that causes botulism. Although sodium nitrite is a naturally-occurring chemical in vegetables, it might increase the risk of developing cancer when used as a food additive.
Large Doses May Increase Cancer Risk
Large portions of processed meats that contain sodium nitrite have been linked to increased incidences of cancer. A study consisting of nearly 10,000 adult males and a 24-year follow-up found a relationship between sodium nitrates from smoked fish and colorectal cancer but not from other cured meats such as smoked sausage and lunch meat.
Small Doses Are Safe
Sodium nitrite does not become toxic or increase risk of cancer in doses up to 10 mg of sodium nitrite per lb. of body weight, according to the FDA. This translates to an intake of 19 lbs. of cured meat for a 150-lb. individual. The FDA considers 200 parts per million, or ppm, of sodium nitrite added to food as safe; this is equivalent to about 1 lb. of sodium nitrite additive per 5,000 lbs. of cured meat.
Uncured Meats are Available
Overall, small amounts of cured meats containing sodium nitrite are not likely to cause cancer. If you want to avoid sodium nitrite altogether, many natural food supermarkets offer meat products that are nitrite-free. These products are often labeled uncured and will not have sodium nitrite listed as an ingredient.