What Are Nitrites?
Nitrite is an ionic molecule consisting of 1 Nitrogen atom and 2 Oxygen atoms. It carries a negative charge and therefore bonds with positive ions, usually to form a salt. These compounds are what is most often referenced when articles discuss “nitrites” and the most common form is sodium nitrite.
What Are Nitrites Used For?
Sodium nitrite is used in curing meats for 3 main purposes:
- Preventing microbial growth – Specifically the Clostridium botulinum bacteria responsible for botulism (so that’s a plus)
- Cosmetics – Sodium nitrite is added to meats to give them a healthy red/pink color even though they would naturally have changed to a darker, more brown hue
- Prevent rancid flavor – Sodium nitrite acts as an antioxidant to prevent the oxidation of lipids (fats) in meat that would make it taste bad
So sodium nitrite is helping prevent botulism (a big positive), keeps meats looking “fresh”, and slows fat oxidation that would make meat taste bad. While the first reason is helpful, the latter two reasons are purely commercial so that meat looks good and tastes good longer. That’s a big thing with our current food system because meat is being shipped great distances and isn’t “fresh” in virtually any sense of the word.
Are Nitrites Dangerous?
There are concerns that large amounts of nitrites (bacon is particularly high in nitrites) can increase the risk of colorectal cancers but the research hasn’t been able to show a strong causal relationship. Here are a couple articles for your reading:
The real concern is when nitrites are converted into nitrosamines, which are most strongly connected to all the bad stuff mentioned above.
Natural Sources of Nitrites
Looking at labels of grass fed beef jerky you’ll often encounter the ingredient celery juice. This is used as a natural source of nitrites and often the packages will use messaging such as “No added nitrites” or “Sodium nitrate free”.
If possible I would recommend avoiding beef jerky with sodium nitrite as an ingredient. It will be very clearly listed on the ingredient label and should be easy to avoid.