As of 2022 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), has mandated new regulations to appear on the front of food packaging and labels. Now, companies are required to include an icon if the food is high in saturated fat, sodium and sugar. But what about deli meat products that contain nitrites, a known carcinogen?

While sodium nitrite is an effective preservative, it also has some drawbacks. The most serious concern is that it can form cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines. These nitrosamines can be formed when sodium nitrite reacts with heat and certain proteins in meat.

The IARC/WHO classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, the same category as alcohol, tobacco smoking and asbestos. According to The World Cancer Research Fund International, research has shown that nitrosamines can cause cancer in the lining of your stomach and may also be linked to pancreatic, bladder, and other cancers.

A recent study published by the Canadian Cancer Society found that processed meats containing nitrites increase the risk of certain types of cancer, and that this risk increases with each 1.8 ounces consumed per day, or roughly 2-4 slices of deli meat, or 2 slices of bacon.

The article, ‘Too much’ nitrite-cured meat brings clear risk of cancer, speaks to a study by scientists from Queen’s University Belfast. They found that mice fed a diet of processed meat containing nitrites developed 75% more cancerous tumours in the duodenum than mice fed nitrite-free pork.

In the UK, the government has mandated warning labels on deli meat products containing nitrites, yet the Canadian government is taking a different approach and focusing solely on factors like fat, sugar and salt.

The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that parents limit their children’s consumption of nitrite-cured deli meats and consider healthier options like fresh poultry and fish. They also suggest reading labels carefully, as some processed meats may be labelled “nitrate free” but still contain nitrites in the form of celery powder.

The Consumer Reports article “Danger at the Deli”, published in 2019, sheds light onto the deceptive labelling of nitrites in deli meats. Often companies will label their products as “uncured” or “no added nitrites”. This is inaccurate because celery extracts are a common ingredient in “natural” deli meats. This ingredient is exactly the same as sodium nitrite in how it interacts with proteins to form nitrosamines.

To make matters worse, these extracts are permitted in organic bacon. Organic regulations are supposed to restrict harmful preservatives in food. Allowing celery extracts in an organic meat product can be misleading to consumers who assume the Organic stamp means the food is free of potentially harmful chemicals. Even though celery is a naturally occurring nitrite, its interaction with meat poses the same risks as chemical nitrites, when it comes to the formation of nitrosamines.

Nitrites are added to processed meats as a preservative, colour enhancer and flavour enhancer. The nitrite helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria like Clostridium botulinum in meat products such as bacon, ham, sausages and hot dogs. Nitrites also help give cured meats their signature pinkish colour. But are they still necessary today with new technology like HPP?

High-pressure processing (HPP) is a food preservation technology that uses extreme pressure instead of chemicals to preserve food. This technology has been around since the 1990s and is now used as an alternative way to preserve meats without preservatives. HPP is also helping to reduce the risks associated with Listeria in the food industry. It is effective at eliminating food-damaging organisms and deactivating microorganisms. Although it is gaining traction in the food industry, HPP is still not as widely used as it could be, due to its relatively high cost.

So should the CFIA include nitrites in the list of prohibited substances when it comes to food safety? The CFIA has yet to make a definitive ruling but it is clear that consumers should be aware of nitrites and their potential health risks, especially in processed deli meats.

MCLEAN MEATS was the first company in Canada to create truly preservative free deli meats. We are still the only company who’s entire product line is free of sodium nitrite and celery extracts.

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