Sodium Nitrites in Cured Meat

The Secret Behind Sodium Nitrites in Cured Meat

Pick up any package of generic hot dogs in the store, and you may be wondering. These don’t have a nitrate/nitrite free claim on them. Does this mean they’re loaded with them? Labels concerning Antibiotics In Meat will probably have you feeling the same way and are literally just as confusing. The good news is you can clear that up here. Considering the word nitrate doesn’t necessarily invoke warm fuzzy feelings from most people  – you’re not alone.You may even for choosing a package that is emblazoned with a nitrate/nitrite – free claim. So, if they have such a bad rap – let’s dig  into the secret behind sodium nitrites in cured meat.

It’s no secret that they’re pretty widely used in meat. But why? It was one of my favorite things that we learned in my meats class during college – aside from what’s really in your hot dog that is. First of all a nitrate or nitrate is simply a nitrogen atom with some oxygen atoms attached (two to three depending on what it is).

Without wasting any time – lets dig right in!

The Secret Behind Sodium Nitrites in Cured Meat

There are a few reasons that they have been and continue to be used in meat that has been cured like hot dogs, bacon and lunch meats. Because who doesn’t love a good sandwich right?



I don’t know about you, but what’s the last time that you wanted to purchase a brown meat that wasn’t roast beef? Probably never.


Even for those of us that aren’t meat experts, a brown color tends to indicate that maybe a cut of meat isn’t as fresh. This could be misleading due to a variety of factors. When nitrites are infused with myoglobin (a protein that is oxygen binding and found in blood) then there’s a reaction  that ensures the meat remains a pinkish red. You may tell me it wouldn’t bother you to purchase a brown meat product. But I also know that to meet consumer expectations, there’s tons of ugly fruit that will never make it to the store shelf. So thus, to meet consumer demand this is one of the reasons that they use sodium nitrites in cured meat.


We’ve all heard about antioxidants. People tend to think really highly of them, and berries are actually pretty famous for having the perception that they’re stacked full of them.


Antioxidants mean that they will prevent the oxidization of fat. Now last week, we already established that fat is necessary for human beings. It helps us maintain body temperature among a whole host of other essential functions. Since it serves as an antioxidant this essentially means that is helps preserve the meat. If we didn’t utilize nitrates, nitrites and sodium nitrite this would be very unsustainable. We would have to consume all meat products before the fat would naturally oxidize. This would contribute to food waste. If you don’t want it to go rancid before you can eat it, then sodium nitrites in cured meat are very necessary.

Bacteria Preventative

Another reason that the meat industry chooses to utilize nitrates, nitrites and sodium nitrites in cured meat is to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum. In 12-36 hours this bad boy can really cause negative effects in your nervous system because of the toxin it produces. It can eventually (if left untreated) cause paralysis.


The effect of short-term smoothing of wrinkles is also achieved by type A of this toxin being injected. As you guessed it – botox. This can last several months and is introduced in a controlled way. I’m not trying to knock botox. I am asking you if you would rather be susceptible to this from meat when you know the effects it can have when it is introduced intentionally.


Did you know that they contribute to the taste of cured meats? You may not notice it, but they do. In fact, they have an incredibly large impact on some of the larger staples. Things like bacon and ham wouldn’t taste like themselves without them. It seems kind of crazy the average person, but meat scientists have done actual studies on it.

Why do Nitrates and Nitrites Have Such a Bad Rap?

It’s pretty astounding how long a negative connotation can follow a product around. Just like the one that hangs around sodium nitrites in cured meat. Literally the study that had an impact on public opinion and still does today was done in the 1950’s. In this study they showed that in a controlled experiment with pure nitrite that it could be carcinogenic.Which obviously really freaked a lot people out.

But also makes it not quite as relevant as everyone would believe.

Are Nitrites Really That Scary?

First of all, it’s really important to note that nitrites are found in nature all the time. They’re not something explicitly cooked up in a lab. You can find them in spinach, cabbage, lettuce, beets, celery and yes – even your own saliva! We can chemically make nitrites. This is pretty nifty for commercial food preservation purposes. But did you know the secret behind sodium nitrates in cured meat? Even if a package claims to have meat that is ‘naturally cured’ they still use celery salt and still contain nitrites.


But what safeguards are there in place to prevent that much nitrite from being in my cured meat? Well, there is a STRICT legal limit on them. In fact, it cannot ever exceed 156 ppm (parts per million) and end up on a store shelf. But what if I eat a LOT of bacon asks Americans everywhere – because really, who doesn’t like bacon.


You would have to eat a LOT of bacon. When I mean a LOT, I mean  that since 156 ppm is the max and this isn’t more than 1.9 grams you would have to eat 190 pounds in one sitting. While this would be impressive, it simply isn’t possible.


In fact, there’s a lot more nitrite in a stalk of celery than you would ever find in a hot dog. In 1 stalk of celery you would find .3% nitrite where hot dogs only contain .003% nitrite.

If you have more questions about meat or sodium nitrites in cured meat you should check out this fabulous blog by an actual scientist Mom at the Meat Counter!

Thanks for reading!



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