Nitrate free bacon and nitrite free bacon have exploded in popularity in recent years. Google Trends shows that there has been a 68% increase in searches for “nitrate free bacon” over the last 10 years.
There has also been an explosion of products labeled as “nitrate free bacon” and “nitrite free bacon” in the market over the same time period. All bacon is nitrate free bacon. Most bacon contains nitrites, not nitrates. Due to USDA labeling requirements, nitrite free bacon has been labeled as “uncured bacon.”
Much of the spike took place in October 2015 when the World Health Organization declared bacon (and other cured meats) a carcinogen because of the ingredient sodium nitrate. Naturally some consumers are concerned about the purported health effects of sodium nitrite in bacon and have been looking for alternatives to traditionally cured meats.
What is nitrate free bacon?
Nitrate free bacon is pretty much all bacon. While many people are searching for nitrate free bacon, the fact is that bacon is not cured using sodium nitrate.
Nitrate free bacon typically means bacon that is free from sodium nitrate. Likewise nitrite free bacon means that bacon which is free from sodium nitrite. Only one of these is used to help preserve meat.
Sodium nitrite is a salt required by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for preserving certain kinds of meat products with strict regulations in the amounts that are allowed to be used.
Sodium nitrate is used to prevent the formation of several kinds of bacteria in meat preventing decomposition, which in turn enhances the color and flavor of the meat in addition to lengthening its shelf life.
Since the USDA requires nitrites to be present in any product that is labeled as “cured” the workaround for some meat producers has been to use a celery powder which contains naturally occurring nitrites. Typically most products like this have labels saying “nitrate and nitrite free, except those found naturally occurring in celery powder.”
Curiously though, that bacon is not truly nitrite free bacon since it still contains nitrites. More about that further down below.
Nitrates vs Nitrites
Nitrates and nitrites are very similar. They are salts, meaning that are more accurately called “sodium nitrate” and “sodium nitrite.”
Going back to chemistry 101, both of them contain nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrate have three oxygen atoms and nitrites have two oxygen atoms.
Essentially nitrates convert into nitrites as they lose one oxygen atom by a reaction with bacteria in the mouth or enzymes in the body. Nitrate is inert and must be converted by bacteria into nitrite to be able to be used for food preservation.
Nitrites help keep bacon looking fresh and prevent it from breaking down.
Nitrates and nitrites are naturally occurring in many things, including vegetables such as celery, and are even critical for the human body for blood pressure regulation, memory, and more.
Health concerns about nitrates and nitrites in bacon
Some studies have shown that there is an increased risk for cancer when consuming red meat daily, especially processed meats, of which bacon is one kind. Processed meats typically contain nitrites to aid in preservation.
In 2012, a study by the Archives of Internal Medicine showed a substantial increased risk of cancer with daily consumption of processed meats in addition to other adverse health effects.
Nitrites and nitrates are frequently used in the preservation of processed meats, and blood nitrite concentrations have been related to endothelial dysfunction and impaired insulin response in adults.Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, et al. Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(7):555–563. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287
Some studies have shown that consumption of meat using nitrates or nitrites has been found to be linked to cancer. It’s not the nitrates or nitrites themselves, but what happens to them when the meat is cooked at high temperatures.
At high temperatures, nitrites in the presence of amino acids (of which protein is an amino acid), can convert into nitrosamines, which, when consumed in high quantities, have been shown to increase risk of cancer.
Several compounds in red meat or created by high-temperature cooking, including N-nitroso compounds (nitrosamines or nitrosamides) converted from nitrites, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heterocyclic amines, are potential carcinogens.Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, et al. Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(7):555–563. doi:https://doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2011.2287
The World Health Organization study released in October 2015 showed an increased risk in colorectal cancer when consuming just 50g of red meat daily. One pound is equal to approximately 453.6g.
In a Q & A sheet released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) they clarify the classification of processed meats as a carcinogen.
[…] Processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.
Experts agree that limiting meat consumption to two to three times per week is probably best.
Under the right conditions, nitrosamines form in meat products that contain nitrites and in the presence of amino acids during the cooking process. It is these nitrosamines that are linked to the formation of cancer cells in the body. Specifically, nitrosamines form during high-heat cooking (>300ºF) of meat.
Since this risk exists, the USDA has taken steps to reduce this risk, requiring the addition of a vitamin C additive, sodium erythorbate, to mitigate the formation of nitrosamines during the cooking process, making bacon containing sodium nitrite safe to eat.
Sodium nitrate is prohibited from being added to bacon so as to eliminate an additional possible source of nitrites from converting to nitrosamines.
Companies that make bacon are required to undergo routine food safety checks to ensure that they are using no more than the allowed amounts of sodium nitrite (and certainly no nitrates) along with vitamin C to ensure the safety and health of all consumers of their products.
In the interest of marketing, some labeling on “uncured” bacon products is a little misleading, however.
What about uncured bacon and celery powder?
Many times you will see uncured bacon or nitrate/nitrite free bacon in the grocery store with a disclaimer that says “except those found naturally occurring in celery powder.” This language creates the illusion that nitrites found in celery powder are natural and therefore they are better for you than purified sodium nitrite added during manufacturing.
A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016 cites that synthetic and naturally occurring nitrites make no difference to the human body and they are processed the same way.
Most nitrite free bacon cannot claim that it is truly nitrite free. The labeling on these products is a lie. Simply stated, if it contains the disclaimer about “except those found naturally occurring in celery powder” or some similar language, then the product has nitrites.
Bacon and other cured meats with celery powder are not truly nitrite free, and should be avoided by those looking to buy nitrate free bacon and nitrite free bacon. This bacon is typically titled “uncured bacon” or “pure bacon” or “nitrate free bacon,” but they still contain nitrites.
Not only is this type of bacon typically not free of nitrites, but often contains greater quantities of nitrites than traditionally cured bacon.
Despite the relative safety of bacon cured with nitrites, some people still have concerns about the consumption of bacon containing nitrites. Finding truly nitrite free bacon has proven difficult because of the use of celery powder in these so called “nitrate free bacon” and “nitrite free bacon” products.
Where to buy real nitrite free bacon?
Finding true nitrite free bacon in the marketplace is difficult, especially with the misleading labeling about celery powder allowed by the FDA.
We have been able to source a truly nitrite free bacon that does not use celery powder as a substitute, and is just as tasty and technically cured as regular bacon or even the other nitrite free bacon brands.
Nitrite free bacon is now available to purchase in two, three, or five pounds and ships to your door direct from a family owned, fourth generation meat market.
Instead of celery powder, it contains a blend of Mediterranean herbs and extracts to cure the bacon which has been scientifically proven in studies by the University of Kentucky and the University of Wisconsin-Madison as being as effective as traditional curing methods.
At Bacon Scouts, we have had the pleasure of trying this new bacon, and we agree that it is a fantastic product. Very delicious, minimal shrinkage when cooking, and perfectly sliced, it is the best uncured and nitrite free bacon in the market.
You can buy nitrite free bacon right now by clicking the link below.
No nitrates. No nitrites. No celery powder. This delicious hickory smoked bacon has been cured using a Mediterranean blend of fruit and spice extracts and contains absolutely zero nitrates or nitrites.
Your choice of the following amounts.
2 lbs., 3 lbs., or 5 lbs. BEST VALUE!
We featured this bacon in our November 2019 Bacon of the Month Club.