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Nitrates vs Nitrites in Cured Meats

Nitrates vs Nitrites in Cured Meats


Nitrates and nitrites are found in various foods, and they serve to help in the meat curing process; however, there is a lot of confusion about what purpose each serves. These compounds are found naturally in foods such as vegetables and artificially in processed foods and cured meats as a preservative. Some people believe that they are harmful, yet the science is unclear and some studies even show that they may be healthy.

Looking at these compounds chemically, nitrate is formed from 1 nitrogen atom and 3 oxygen atoms. Nitrites are formed from 1 nitrogen atom and 2 oxygen atoms. So, chemically, the difference between them is the concentration of oxygen.

Nitrates have not been shown to have any distinct effects, until they are turned into nitrites by bacteria in the mouth or enzymes in the body. Nitrates, which break down into nitrites, were originally used to cure meats until it was discovered that directly using nitrites significantly shortened the process of curing.

Nitrites remove the water from meats, preventing the growth of bacteria, which preserves the meat. Nitrites are also the reason that cured meat is pink. The nitrites turn into Nitric Oxide, which react with oxygen-binding proteins in the meat, which change its color to red rather than brown.

Both nitrates and nitrites are found naturally in foods and our bodies. Vegetables are the biggest dietary source of nitrites. The amount of nitrites concentrated in vegetables is significantly higher than that in cured meats. Our bodies also produce nitrites which are secreted into saliva. They circulate from saliva into the digestive system, where they function as antimicrobials, helping to kill pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella.

Although the natural purpose of nitrites is still disputed, they are produced by our bodies and found in healthy foods such as vegetables, which leads most scientists to believe they are beneficial to our health. Through the process of curing, they also allow us to preserve foods for long periods of time. Not only do they extend the life of meats, but they add the signature salty flavor and red coloring that we identify with delicious meats like salami and pepperoni.