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Beware of nitrate and nitrite based preservatives

Beware of nitrate and nitrite based preservatives

Additives are substances that are added to foods, especially industrial ones, to preserve them from microbial contamination, rancidity and to improve their appearance and consistency.
Even if the vast majority of them are harmless to health, some food additives and preservatives increase the risk of cancer.
Among these certainly the preservatives based on nitrates and nitrites.
In particular, nitrites are used as preservatives because they are essential to prevent the development of potentially very dangerous pathogenic microorganisms, including Clostridium botulinum which causes botulinum toxin.
Nitrates and nitrites, used above all in the preservation of meat and sausages, can undergo chemical modifications which transform them into nitrosamines, potentially carcinogenic molecules. Excessive and prolonged consumption of nitrites is associated with an increased risk of stomach and oesophageal cancers.
Even if all additives for food use are subject to a long process of evaluating their safety, this does not however exclude a certain prudence in the use of some substances, especially if taken frequently.
We remind you that in Europe, the evaluation is carried out by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and the authorized additives are identified by the letter E followed by a number. Other international supervisory bodies are the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Although at present research has not shown, in general, a correlation between the development of tumors and the consumption of additives in limited (and we emphasize limited) quantities, however, nitrites and nitrates are an exception, which are used as preservatives, in particularly in meat and sausages, due to the modifications they can undergo within the body and can convert them into carcinogenic substances.
Nitrates and nitrites per se are not carcinogenic, but they can undergo, as mentioned, both due to the action of metabolism and through cooking, a series of chemical transformations which convert them into N-nitrosamines, compounds which are instead considered carcinogenic.
Nitrates can also be converted into nitrites by the action of the salivary glands in the mouth. Nitrites, in turn, can combine with other molecules, amines, present in protein-rich foods such as meat, cured meats, cheeses, to form N-nitrosamines, which are instead carcinogenic.
For this reason, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a body of the World Health Organization, has classified ingested nitrates and nitrites as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A).
In this regard, we recall that nitrates are found naturally in various foods, including vegetables (beets, celery, turnips, spinach), especially if grown with the addition of abundant nitrogenous fertilizers (which significantly increases the risk), and in drinking water.
The formation of nitrosamines occurs spontaneously in the human body: in the highly acidic environment of the stomach, nitrites are converted into nitrous acid, which in turn combines easily with amines to give nitrosamines. Even cooking at high temperatures, such as frying, favors the conversion of nitrites into nitrosamines.
For this reason, foods containing certain nitrate and nitrite-based preservatives should therefore be avoided or greatly reduced; between these:
– potassium nitrite (E249);
– sodium nitrite (E250);
– sodium nitrate (E251);
– potassium nitrate (E252).
These preservatives are present above all in canned meat, sausages and processed meats (the maximum nitrite limit permitted by Italian law is 150 milligrams per kilogram of food product).
For correct information it must be said that some antioxidants, such as vitamin C (E300) and its derivatives, sodium ascorbate (E301) and potassium ascorbate (E303), inhibit the formation of nitrosamines from nitrates and nitrites and for this they are often used in combination in the food industry.

Unfortunately, even if the current legal regulations, which regulate the use of nitrites as food additives, are based on the principle that allows their use in small quantities for foods, in which the health risk of a possible Botox contamination is much greater than the risk of increasing the probability of cancer, however and often, the little or no information or knowledge on the effects of these substances, linked to the abuse of certain foods (such as sausages and cured meats), can lead to serious and concrete increased risk of these tumors.
For this reason, serious programs should be taken by Governments to promote greater food safety by following some important directions:
– informing people of the risks in the use and methods of taking certain foods preserved with these products (especially for the weakest sections of the population, including children and the elderly);
– through correct food education, advising, for example, to avoid foods containing nitrites and nitrates, preferring fresh meat, or reducing their consumption in favor of a diet richer in fruit and vegetables which contain antioxidants and vitamins, inhibitors of the formation of nitrosamines.
– promoting production, processing and transformation processes of products that avoid the use of these substances (such as, for example, short supply chains, agroecology and organic agriculture to drastically reduce the use or accumulation of nitrates and nitrites );
It is evident how much progress needs to be made to bring down the disease of the century and this effort should not be produced only on research against cancer (which is however appropriate) but by preventing the onset of some of its forms through a prevention policy which invests the whole agri-food chain.

Guido Bissanti

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