BLAT or LAT? Do we need to give up our bacon?

Serious bacon lovers may say ‘yeah, whatever’ and continue to enjoy their BLATs, but those with health concerns may read a headline such as ‘Processed meats under fire over nitrate cancer risk’ and be concerned. But should we be worried over that slice of ham in our bun or including a couple of slices of bacon with that Sunday breakfast?  Let’s get a clear picture on the situation in New Zealand when it comes to nitrates in our food and in processed meat.

The headline above was recent news coming out of the UK, where a group of scientists, medical professionals and politicians have urged the government to take action over the removal of the additive nitrate (or its close relative nitrite) from processed meats due to its link with bowel cancer. However opinion is divided over safe levels.

Processed* or cured meats include bacon, saveloys, frankfurters, luncheon, ham, salami, and corned silverside. Nitrate or nitrite (E250 or E251 in the ingredients list) are used in processed meat for many useful effects.

In meat, nitrite – which is the active form – improves flavour and stops the growth of bacteria such Clostridium botulinum, which can lead to the very serious botulism form of food poisoning.  Basically, it keeps our meat looking good, tasting great, and most importantly it keeps us safe.

The concern expressed by the coalition of experts in the UK is because nitrites in foods such as cured or processed meat can react with other natural components in food or through cooking processes to form nitrosamines – which are undoubtedly carcinogens.  As such, the International Agency for Research on Cancer identified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen to humans and suggest a link with a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

However, it should be noted this is a ‘link’ and Professor Owen Young, a food scientist and meat science expert from Auckland University of Technology says “Unlike the very clear risks of smoking and over exposure to sunshine,  which are classed in the same risk category as processed meat, large scale studies have not shown any consistent relationship between the consumption of nitrate/nitrite directly causing any type of cancer”.

As such this hazard identification does not mean we need to stop eating processed meat, and the World Health Organisation along with the World Cancer Research Fund recommend limiting consumption of processed meat to reduce risk of colorectal cancer. Again it’s that old adage ‘everything in moderation’.

But there are other reasons we shouldn’t be too concerned” shared Professor Young “People think that cured meat is the major source of nitrate/nitrite in the diet. Not so. Drinking water and vegetables represent the vast bulk of nitrate and nitrite in our diet, typically more than 90%, and in New Zealand we eat rather less cured meat that in many other countries. 

“New Zealanders’ chance of eating unsafe amounts of nitrates and nitrites is very low, with the average adult eating well under 20% of their Average Daily Intake (ADI)”.

Along with this, he stresses “Food Standards Australia New Zealand, which is a very conservative and safety-conscious regulatory body, defines limits for a great number of permitted additives. Thus, the levels of nitrite that can be added to meat is strictly controlled.  This does not mean that higher levels are necessarily dangerous.  Rather it means the upper limit for added nitrite is easily enough to do the curing job”.

And it’s good news for bacon lovers. “Ascorbic acid, a.k.a. vitamin C, is routinely included in bacon curing salt mixtures in New Zealand. Not only does it aid the curing process, but also effectively stops nitrosamines from forming on high temperature frying – and most like bacon done that way”, he says.

Professor Young believes the response in the UK is an overreaction as doses consumed are not in a high enough concentration to be toxic in the body. He also feels that banning of nitrite curing in New Zealand would likely see a rise in cases of botulism from Clostridium botulinum contamination. 

“If the New Zealand public wants something important to worry about, look closer at food safety practices to avoid food poisoning.  It is widespread – and sometimes fatal.  Forget nitrite and remember to clean, cook, chill”.

To find out more check out our FAQ on Nitrates/Nitrites.


* Processed meats are defined in New Zealand as meat that has undergone processing other than boning, slicing, dicing, mincing or freezing.