Cancer risk from chemicals used to cure processed meats

Posted Mar 25, 2018 by Tim Sandle
A new study has added to the body evidence about cancer risks from certain chemicals used in the processed food industry. This time the focus is with chemicals used to cure processed meats.
The study comes from Queen’s University Belfast, U.K. The researchers have discovered that the nitrates used in the curing process for processed meats can release chemicals that lead to an elevated risk of colorectal cancer.
Curing refers to food preservation and flavoring processes. One way to achieve this is through the addition of nitrates or nitrites. The curing process draws moisture out of the food by through the process of osmosis. The act of dehydrating food increases the solute concentration in the food and lower its water potential, meaning that the food stuff becomes an inhospitable environment for microbial growth.
In the new study, the scientists have shown a direct link between nitrates used to produce bacon and dangerous chemicals called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are used in the manufacture of some cosmetics, pesticides, and in most rubber products, and they are classified as carcinogens. Foods which have been shown to contain volatile nitrosamines include cured meats, primarily cooked bacon; beer; some cheeses; nonfat dry milk; and sometimes fish.
Specifically the nitrate and nitrite additives to improve food quality have been shown to be are sources of N-nitroso compounds which are known carcinogens. For this to happen, a range of factors need to be accounted for, such as the level of nitrite added, the meat quality, fat content, the method of processing, the type of packaging used and how the meat is handled for preparation.
Commenting on the research, lead researcher Professor Chris Elliott explains: “The latest research at Queen’s University Belfast has shown that there is a direct link between nitrites and the formation of nitrosamines.”
He adds: “This means that when people consume bacon –which is currently cured with nitrites in the UK – they could be increasing their risk of contracting cancer…it is certainly beneficial to reduce our intake of nitrates and nitrites from processed meat. It is estimated that more than 50 per cent of bowel cancer cases are preventable and lifestyle changes such as improved diet could help.”
Instead of nitrates the researchers recommend that green tea polyphenols be considered as an alternative when processing meat. The research has been published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics. The paper is titled “Nitrates, Nitrites and Nitrosamines from Processed Meat Intake and Colorectal Cancer Risk.”