Sodium nitrate is a food additive used in many processed and cured meats, including many varieties of bacon. It increases shelf life, reduces bacteria and creates the pink hue that gives bacon a fresh appearance. Sodium nitrate also improves the smoky flavors of bacon and slows the rate that bacon will pick up foul smells. Although sodium nitrate seems like a wonderful additive, the benefits might not outweigh the risks.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture monitors the use of sodium nitrate and other nitrates very carefully. For every 100 pounds of bacon, a quarter-ounce of sodium nitrate can be used. However, your average bacon contains 5.5 milligrams of nitrates for every gram of bacon, according to a report in the May 2009 issue of the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” As for personal consumption, the World Health Organization recommends eating no more than 3.7 milligrams of nitrates for each 2.2 pounds of body weight. Therefore, someone weighing 125 pounds should consume no more than 210 milligrams of nitrates a day -- the amount of nitrate found in 1.3 ounces of bacon.
Pregnant women should take precautions when eating bacon containing sodium nitrate. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, high consumption of nitrates during pregnancy can cause slow intrauterine growth, infant heart problems, miscarriage and sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. Furthermore, mothers who consume a lot of cured meats during pregnancy and breastfeeding may increase their child’s risk of brain cancer, although more studies are needed. In rare cases, adults may experience methemoglobinemia, which reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood. This can ultimately lead to death if left untreated.
Nitrosamines are created when nitrites are heated. Nitrosamines are a known carcinogen in animals, according to the University of Minnesota. Therefore, people should be cautious when heating nitrate or nitrite-rich foods. When it comes to bacon, try to avoid overcooking the bacon and cook at lower temperatures when possible. This will cut down on the formation of nitrosamines. Furthermore, cooking your bacon in the microwave is better than frying it.
With an increasing awareness of the potential dangers of sodium nitrate, many companies are now producing nitrate- and nitrite-free versions of their bacon. Purchasing these options may help reduce your exposure to sodium nitrates. However, bacon made without nitrates is more prone to spoilage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that bacon made without nitrates or nitrites include the phrase “Not Preserved, Keep Refrigerated Below 40 degrees Fahrenheit At All Times." When buying nitrate-free bacon it is important to observe this rule to avoid an illness.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Food Safety Basics
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Nitrates and Nitrites; May 200
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Food Sources of Nitrates and Nitrites: The Physiologic Context for Potential Health Benefits
- University of Minnesota Extension: Nitrite in Meat