Is Natural, Nitrate-Free Ham Better?

ham on bread

(HealthCastle.com) You may have come across natural, organic, or nitrate-free ham in the grocery stores. Ever wonder if they are better than conventionally processed ham?

What's Wrong with Processed Ham?

Processed meats contain nitrates and nitrites, which are used to preserve the meat and prevent food-borne illness such as botulism. Nitrates and nitrites also give cured meats their distinctive pink coloring and "cured" flavor. However, dietary nitrates or nitrites can react with amino acid byproducts in your digestive tract (or in the meat itself) to form nitrosamines, a known carcinogen. A large, multi-year study of over 500,000 participants done by the National Cancer Institute found an increased risk of several types of cancers that are associated with processed meat sources of dietary nitrates/nitrites, such as bladder cancer and pancreatic cancer. A 2007 Expert Report from the World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research stated that processed meat is a "convincing cause" of colorectal cancer.

So, Is Natural Ham Better?

The label stating "natural, "uncured," or "no nitrates or nitrites added" simply means that no sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite was directly added to cure the meat. What it really means is:

  • Natural ham is NOT free of nitrates or nitrites. That's because it's cured with vegetable extract (usually celery juice powder or cultured celery extract) that is high in naturally occurring nitrates. Commercial celery juice powder can have a nitrate concentration as high as 27,500 ppm, according to a 2007 American Meat Science Association paper. A study that tested curing hams with celery juice powder found  that, depending on how much celery juice powder was used per given volume of meat, ingoing nitrite concentrations ranged from 69 to 139 ppm (compared to 156 to 200 ppm for conventionally processed meat cured with sodium nitrate). 
     
  • Natural ham is NOT nutritionally superior or better than its conventionally processed counterpart. Processed meats tend to be high in sodium or fat, regardless of the source of nitrates/nitrites used to cure them, according to consulting dietitian and MSN.ca columnist Rosie Schwartz.

Do We Need to Worry about High-Nitrate Veggies?

Some vegetables are naturally high in nitrates -  including celery, lettuce, spinach, beets, radishes, and carrots. However, we don't need to worry about these natural vegetables, as they tend also to contain lots of phytonutrients or vitamins that act as antioxidants, which can presumably counteract the carcinogens formed.

Is Celery Juice or Celery Powder Safe?

No study has confirmed the safety of using celery extract, juice, or powder in curing meats, according to Dr. Roger Clemens, a food ingredient expert and president of the Institute of Food Technologists. In addition, being "natural" does not mean it's safer, healthier, or nutritionally superior. After all, celery juice powder or extract is just an ingredient, not a whole food.

The Bottom Line

Celery extract, juice, or powder used in curing meats is not free of nitrates or nitrites, so buyers beware! ​Using vegetable-derived extract as a source of nitrates for curing meats does not address the real issue on hand: eating less processed foods and reducing dietary intake of nitrates/nitrites. 

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