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The Nitrite Nightmare

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Some call it meat candy while others would say it's the equivalent to angels dancing across your taste buds. That's right folks, its BACON! I think it's safe to say bacon is one thing that most all carnivores can agree on.

But wait! Sure, bacon is a wonderful and in most cases "put you in a good mood" go to meat product; but I've been hearing some not so good stuff about it lately. For instance, did you know there are nitrites in bacon and well, that some say cause cancer? So sorry folks, no more bacon. Might as well just go ahead and cancel next year's "Bacon Fest."

Is this really an end to the carnivores delight?

Before you call for a refund on next year's Bacon Fest tickets, let's talk. We actually may be jumping the gun just a bit.

Sure, there is an ingredient called sodium nitrite in most bacon. This is actually a pretty common ingredient found in a variety of processed meats from hotdogs to deli meats. In fact, meat processors have been using sodium nitrite in cured meat products for hundreds of years. Sodium nitrite helps increase the shelf life of products by decreasing nasty organisms that cause food-borne illnesses, and protects the flavor of the meat while also enhancing the color of the product. Nitrites are what cause the nice pink color in cured hams, hotdogs and, of course, BACON!

Sodium nitrite is kind of a scary word. Let's be honest, it sounds like a lot of chemistry goes into explaining what a nitrite really is. Plain and simple, nitrites act as a form of food safety by eliminating disease causing bacteria and preventing food spoilage. Since nitrites and nitrates are comprised of a nitrogen atom and two (nitrite) or three (nitrate) oxygen atoms, it can be very harmful if you ingest three to five grams of the stuff in its pure form. Though three to five grams isn't much, it's enough to cause death in some cases. But not to worry: consuming three to five grams of nitrite in one sitting would be equivalent to 6,000-10,000 servings of nitrite cured meat in one sitting.

Most nitrites consumed from processed meats are synthetic nitrites, however there are quite a few natural occurring nitrates in everyday products and vegetables like butter lettuce, beets and celery. To put things into perspective; two servings of beets or celery have more nitrite than 467 hotdogs!

So can nitrites build up in your body? The simple answer is no, nitrites are actually depleted before they have a chance to build up. The majority of nitrites are excreted through urine within five hours of ingestion. The human body actually produces nitrites naturally. Salivary nitrites (those produced by your salivary glands) account for the majority of your total nitrite exposure due to the fact that most nitrite (50-70 percent) is consumed through fruits and vegetable. Post consumption nitrate is converted to nitrite after coming in contact with your salvia.

Recent studies have actually shown that the exposure to nitrites are beneficial for immune and cardiovascular function and are being studied as a potential treatment for hypertension, heart attacks and sickle cell and circulatory disorders.

So whether your taste leans towards more of commodity-type bacon or niche market artisan bacon, one thing is for sure: you can enjoy every chewy or crispy slice to the end with no worry.