Insights Livestock

Farm Babe: Nitrites and nitrates — should we worry about them in meat?


I’m a bit of an accidental science geek thanks to my fascination with agriculture, which lately made me question food additives. Food labels can be confusing or concerning: What do all these labels and additives actually mean? What do they do?

Well, here’s the deal:

Nitrates can be naturally occurring or man-made. Sodium nitrate is a naturally occurring substance in vegetables, water, soil, and even air. It is found in some salt in its natural state and has helped cure meat for thousands of years. When nitrates are used to cure meats, they are converted to nitrite, and that nitrite reacts with elements of the meat to preserve it. With all of the food additives that are out there, some seem to be very unnecessary while some seem to provide important benefits. One of the primary benefits of nitrites is that they control the growth of dangerous bacteria and prevent the meat from going rancid. They also help to give meats such as ham and bacon the flavor, color, and aroma we expect from them. There is definitely a method to the madness!

So is this additive something to worry about? No, considering that our bodies naturally produce nitrites. You may be surprised to learn that 70 percent to 90 percent of your exposure to nitrites comes from your own saliva. In terms of food, you’d get way more exposure to nitrites in vegetables than you could in meat. According to the American Association of Meat Processors, the USDA limits the amount of nitrite in hot dogs and bacon to 120 parts per million, and during the curing process, the nitrite turns to nitric oxide and leaves only 10 parts per million in the finished product. Compare 10 parts per million in meat to up to 1,900 parts per million in spinach, and there is 190 times more nitrite in spinach than there is in meat! These not-so-scary calculations are also similar to nanogram differences in growth hormones, as I’ve previously outlined here.

To further put this into perspective as to how little this really is, a part per million is like an inch in 16 miles. A part per billion is like a pinch of salt in 10 tons of potato chips. So no, nitrites pose no concern to us as consumers.

There is one aspect though that raised some suspicion though, and that was the fact that cured meats were classified as a possible class 2A carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization. The problem here though is that, according to the IARC, pretty much everything causes cancer as they measure hazards, not risks. It made for good media headlines, but further research revealed they were wrong and there is no proof of cancer risk from consuming sodium nitrite, according to the American Cancer Society, the National Research Council, and the National Academy of Sciences. And of course, nitrites are naturally occurring and the dose always makes the poison. For more info on this, Dr. Janeal Yancey, who has a PhD in meat science, wrote this article called “The sky is not falling on hot dogs and bacon.”

Food companies are always looking for a way to differentiate themselves, and fear is a popular way to do so. Just because something sounds weird doesn’t mean it is. It’s always important to look at the research, and connect to real experts about the science, the hows, and the whys.


Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.

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