Is Natural, Nitrate-Free Ham Better?
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 are conventionally cured or preserved with food additives called sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate; in Europe or parts of Asia, they may be listed on the ingredient list with their respective food additive codes E250 or E251. Sodium nitrite and nitrate are used to preserve meat and prevent food-borne illness such as botulism. They also give cured meats their distinctive pink color and “cured” flavor. However, these added 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 or nitrites, such as bladder cancer and pancreatic cancer. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of WHO World Health Organization announced that consumption of processed meat is carcinogenic to humans (Group 1 ), based on sufficient evidence that the consumption of processed meat causes 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 additives were added to cure the meat. Instead of sodium nitrite, these natural or uncured ham are preserved with a more natural ingredient, usually celery juice powder or celery extract. Celery juice contains natural nitrite, which helps preserve meat. Often, beet juice extract or cherry extract is added to give that pink color.
The following is a common brand of ham without added sodium nitrates:
However, celery powder still contains nitrites and nitrates. 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. Unfortunately, no studies have shown that these natural ham is better than the conventional processed meats in cancer risk prevalence. They both tend to be high in sodium or fat, regardless of the source of nitrates or nitrites used to cure them.
Do We Need to Worry about High-Nitrate Vegetables?
Some vegetables are naturally high in nitrates – including celery, lettuce, spinach, beets, radishes, and carrots. However, we don’t need to worry about these high-nitrate vegetables, as they usually contain phytonutrients or vitamins that act as antioxidants, which can presumably counteract the carcinogens formed. In addition, vegetables do not contains protein and amino acids, preventing the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines.
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 sodium nitrate or nitrite additives.
Alumni: University of British Columbia – Gloria Tsang is the author of 6 books and the founder of HealthCastle.com, the largest online nutrition network run by registered dietitians. Her work has appeared in major national publications, and she is a regularly featured nutrition expert for media outlets across the country. The Huffington Post named her one of its Top 20 Nutrition Experts on Twitter. Gloria’s articles have appeared on various media such as Reuters, NBC & ABC affiliates, The Chicago Sun-Times, Reader’s Digest Canada, iVillage and USA Today.