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Nitrites and Nitrates

by Alex Mugan on June 24, 2024

It's an increasingly common topic. Here's a quick guide to nitrites and nitrates so you can help your customers with their questions.

Nitrates, nitrites, sulphites

Most charcuterie contains sulphites, because sulphites are present in wine. Sometimes we encounter confusion between sulphites and nitrites, so it's necessary to separate concerns about the allergen, sulphites, from questions about nitrites.

What are nitrites and nitrates?

Another name for them is curing salts. They are added to most charcuterie as a way of safely preserving meat. They're forms of salts, including sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate.

Are nitrites and nitrates new?

No. Curing salts have been around for hundreds of years, occurring organically and manufactured. Potassium nitrate is also known as saltpetre, which was part of early recipes for gunpowder.

What do they actually do?

Gunpowder is a clue. These are unstable compounds, which disrupt and break the cell walls of bacteria, helping to preserve the meat.

What's the concern?

Nitrites and nitrates have been linked with compounds which are carcinogenic, potentially causing health conditions such as cancer. The risks are not quantified at this stage, but the evidence to connect them is there. It's related to concerns about 'processed' food. The UK and EU are leading the world on reducing the use of nitrites, having mandated a maximum level much below the permitted level in other areas. 

Are they necessary?

This is being asked more often, given the concerns around their impact on health. The short answer among food producers and environmental health officers at this point is "yes", but it's a nuanced yes. They're regarded as important for dealing with potential pathogens, especially those such as clostridium botulinum, which are able to thrive in environments without oxygen, e.g. inside a sausage. Having said they're necessary, these bacteria can be controlled in other ways, such as with acidity. In the future, alternative ways of dealing with them are likely to be created.

So products with them in are bad?

No, and that's a no with nuance too. Nitrites degrade over time, so the amount that goes into the product is not the same as what's there at the end. In salami, they break down as the product cures, ferments and matures. In other products, which aren't matured in the same way, like some cooking sausages and bacons, there is no opportunity for this breakdown. So while nitrites are considered necessary and safe for salami production, they are less necessary and less safe in other contexts, such as bangers, bacon and burgers, where their requirement is also questionable.

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