What is nitrate?
Nitrate is a compound made of nitrogen. The kind of nitrogen that you breathe in the air. In fact, nitrogen is the single biggest component of our atmosphere. Your own body produces nitrate to aid in digestion, and it might surprise you to know that 70-90% of your nitrite exposure comes from saliva. It is also present in the soil in large amounts, and is used as a fertilizer. Because it is present in the ground, anything that grown in the ground draws sodium nitrate out of the soil. Thus, 80% of the nitrates that we eat comes from food that is grown in the soil. Concentrations in foods such as radishes, spinach, and lettuce can be very high, depending on the soil conditions and the type and amount of fertilizer used.
Sodium nitrate is a type of salt that is particularly effective as a food preservative. Salt works through osmosis by sucking the moisture out of the bacteria’s bodies, killing them by dehydration. This process has been in use for awhile. In fact, the Ancient Egyptians used salt both in the embalming process as well as in food preservation. A little later down the line, preserving fish for the 40 days of Lent became very profitable, as the oils in fish would cause rapid spoilage.
A few decades ago, a study in rats appeared to show an increased cancer risk. As a result, consumers began to fear and avoid cured meats, or buy nitrate free. What seems to have gotten lost along the way is that the original study was peer reviewed, and widely discredited. Currently, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Cancer Society and the National Research Council all agree that there’s no cancer risk from consuming sodium nitrite.
Here’s an interesting article by Chris Kresser if you’re interested in reading further. Also, you can look here for a very well written article in Co-op Food Stores that delves more deeply into the science, as well as provides more links to additional resources.
As always, look carefully at the quality of the food that you’re choosing for yourself and your family. Consider that where your meat comes from and how it was raised may be of more importance than the curing process. Do you own research, and go be awesome.