A few weeks ago I had a client tell me they were avoiding all convenient and portable lunch meats because of the rumor that added nitrates in some of these meats cause cancer. Being such a bold statement, this prompted me to look into the subject a little further. Now before I talk any further, I’d like to point out that I’m not talking about cheap name brand bologna; I’m referring to fresh turkey, roast beef, chicken, etc. that you purchase from your local butcher.
So what are nitrates? Nitrates are compounds consisting of nitrogen and oxygen atoms. They are frequently added to processed and cured meats to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, along with maintaining color and freshness. Once you consume nitrates, they are quickly converted to nitrites by the bacteria in the mouth or other enzymes in the body. From nitrites, one of two things is going happen: nitrites will convert to either nitric oxide (NO) or nitrosamines, which is a known carcinogen. Nitric oxide is a good thing nitrosamines are a bad thing. Nitric oxide is a molecule that enhances cellular communication (not cell phones, FYI) throughout the body’s seemingly infinite amount of cells. Among other benefits, nitric oxide supplementation has been shown to improve cognitive function, improve sleep, improve circulation (it’s a vasodilator), assist in rigorous physical activity (some bodybuilders use this to achieve that ever desired “pump”) reduce inflammation, and many more.
What determines which path these nitrites will take? The answer is heat. Exposing nitrates to extremely high heat will cause a chemical reaction to occur that turns nitrites into nitrosamines, which contain documented cancer causing properties. So the main point here would be to not cook your lunch meat to the point that it’s black and crispy (which I doubt you’re cooking your lunch meat to begin with). If you must cook bacon, using a lower temperature and cooking for longer duration is supposed to limit the amount of nitrosamines created, as well as not cooking the meat until it is black and crispy.
Nitrate regulation has increased over the last decade as well. The amount of nitrates put into processed meats has decreased drastically from what it once used to be due to this regulation. On a side note, approximately 80% of your dietary nitrates come from vegetables. That’s right, vegetables! So by saying nitrates are bad for you then by that logic vegetables would be bad for you, which we all know isn’t true.
So what’s the bottom line? Don’t sweat the nitrates. The more you focus on trivial matters such as this you prolong focusing on what’s actually important in life. If lunch meat keeps you on track, then by all means use it. Forcing yourself to stay up an hour late every night to cook chicken, beef, or fish when it’s something you really don’t want to eat for lunch the next day anyway will set you up for failure. You need to enjoy what you eat in order to make a positive lifestyle change.