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Last Chance Foods: The Nitrate Debate

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The use of nitrates in food preservation is a hot topic of debate among those who are worried about food safety. While nitrates are a compound found naturally in soil and vegetables, the biggest controversy surrounds its use as a meat preservative.

Butcher Ben Turley works at The Meat Hook, a shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that specializes in local, sustainably-raised meat. He says there’s an important reason he uses nitrates in the bacon and sausages he produces. “Preservatives pretty much give us that edge to make sure that harmful bacterias don’t get into our product so we can sell it and know that we’re not going to get anybody sick,” Turley said. Nitrates are used to prevent botulism and other harmful types of bacteria.

But research shows that when used as a food additive, nitrates can cause problems for pregnant women and young children. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration closely monitors nitrate levels in well water and in processed food. But pregnant women and children aside, how concerned should the average adult be when eating the occasional hot dog produced with nitrates?

Registered dietitian Samantha Heller says adults and older children can safely eat meat with nitrates a few times a month. Again, like Turley, she focuses on moderation. “Eating less red, processed meats is always healthier in terms of all the diseases we talk about — cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease — and for children, as well,” she explained.

Even as a butcher, Turley (seen below) agrees that, when it comes to eating meat, there are many other concerns that might very well overshadow any nitrate-related problems. Since the amount of nitrates in meat products is carefully regulated, he says that it would take about 20 or 30 years of eating bacon every day for the additive to cause a problem. “And if you’re eating bacon every day for 20 or 30 years, you probably have bigger health problems,” Turley said. “I would say, maybe focus on that a little more than the impending doom of a little bit of [nitrates] in your bacon.”Ben Turley

He also points out that the FDA closely monitors nitrate use in meat. Recipes for products that include it have to be approved by government authorities to ensure that the amount used is well within safe levels. “It’s true, nitrate can give you cancer ... if you swallow a glass a day for about a year,” he explained in a blog post. “My advice as a food service professional would be to NOT do that.”

However, the same health concerns don’t apply for produce that is naturally high in nitrates, like celery, radishes, and beets, for instance. “Research is showing that somehow the vehicle with which they are transferred to your body, so whether it’s celery or zucchini, or a piece of salami, makes a difference on how it affects the health of your body,” Heller said. “There’s a lot of research that still needs to be done.”

Some butchers are using celery salt, which is naturally high in nitrates, as a work-around when creating “nitrate-free” meat. “You can still say ‘We’re not using nitrates,’ but it’s still essentially... nitrates,” Turley explained.

At The Meat Hook, Turley does not make nitrate free meat for one simple reason: He can’t do it and guarantee safety. “For a small operation like us, I don’t have the infrastructure to make sure that there’s that completely clean environment, that without those nitrates and without those protective barriers, that I can ensure safety,” he said. “Bigger operations that have a USDA inspector there every single day, watching everything that happens, can do that little better bit than we can.”

Turley adds that he probably encounters about one customer a week who specifically asks about nitrates. “There is kind of that public fear, I guess, of nitrates and preservatives and food additives, which is fine, and there’s a lot of reason to have a problem with a lot of them,” he said. “I think that’s trending mainly out of that kind of fear, kind of lumping all preservatives into the same basket.”


Watch Amy Eddings' Sixty Second Stir Fry with Ben Turley

Last Chance Foods is trying something new: a Q&A lightning round of questions with All Things Considered host Amy Eddings and this week's guest, Ben Turley.