For many years now, I’ve written about the health hazards posed by cured meats, which are high in nitrates. As explained in “Top 9 Reasons to Optimize Your Nitric Oxide Production,” not all dietary nitrates are the same.
While nitrates from plant foods promote beneficial nitric oxide production in your body, processed meats trigger conversion of nitrates into carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds.1Nitrates from plants turn into beneficial nitric oxide due to the presence of antioxidants such as vitamin C and polyphenols, which are absent in processed meats.
Nitrates and nitrites are used to cure (preserve) processed meats of all kinds, and studies have repeatedly found they raise your risk of colorectal cancer, even at relatively small amounts.2,3,4,5,6
The World Cancer Research Fund7 has since 2007 warned against eating processed meat, defined as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation,” due to its cancer risk. The American Institute for Cancer Research also recommends avoiding processed meats for this reason.8
Don’t Trust Nitrate-Free Labels
If you’re an avid label reader, chances are you’ve been swayed by processed meat products (either conventional or organic) labeled as “no nitrates or nitrites added,” “no nitrite” or “uncured,” thinking they must be a healthier option.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. An August 29, 2019, article9 in Consumer Reports highlights a regulatory loophole that allows such labels to mislead consumers. As it turns out, processed meat products labeled as nitrite-free do in fact contain nitrites and are no healthier than other processed meats. This is one of the dirty little secrets that has been kept hush-hush within the organic industry.
Instead, it means that the nitrates and nitrites used to ‘cure’ — or preserve and flavor — meat come from celery or other natural sources, not synthetic ones, such as sodium nitrate or nitrite,” Consumer Report writes.10
“To further confuse matters, ‘their chemical composition is absolutely the same, and so are the health effects,’ says Joseph Sebranek, Ph.D., Morrison Endowed Chair in meat science at Iowa State University …
Nitrates and nitrites prevent bacterial growth and give deli meat its distinctive color and flavor. But there’s a downside. Nitrates convert to nitrites, and when nitrites interact with protein, that creates compounds called nitrosamines — which may cause cancer.”
Testing reveals so-called “uncured” meats don’t even contain lower amounts of nitrites. Whether cured with nitrates and nitrites from natural sources or synthetic ones, the average levels found in chicken, ham, roast beef, turkey and salami were the same.
Together with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumer Reports has filed a petition11 to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, calling on the agency to “stop requiring the terms ‘Uncured’ and ‘No Nitrate or Nitrite Added’ on labels for meat processed with nitrates or nitrites from nonsynthetic sources, such as celery powder,” as such labels are “misleading and may give consumers the false impression that these products are healthier.”12
The Celery Powder Nitrate Scam
But the nitrate scam actually goes deeper than this. Most organic processed meats (whether labeled nitrite-free or not) are cured using celery powder, which isn’t organic. Here, yet another loophole is at play.
As it turns out, nonorganic celery powder is exempt from organic standards altogether, meaning an organic product is allowed to contain nonorganic celery powder and still qualify as 100% organic.13,14
You might wonder what the big deal about that is. The problem is that part of the technique used to produce conventional celery powder is the extra loading of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which the celery plant is very adept at taking up. This makes conventional celery powder a very rich source of nitrate15 — far richer than organic celery powder.16
In April 2019 the Organic Trade Association submitted a comment17 to the National Organic Standards Board saying it is “committed to help the industry innovate and proactively take steps” to replace conventional celery powder with organic celery powder.
However, in the meantime, allowing nonorganic celery powder to be used in organic processed meats must be allowed to continue, or else organic processed meats simply cannot be sold.
The problem is that without nitrogen-loading, organic celery is unlikely to contain high-enough amounts of nitrate to do the job well. The curing process not only affects flavor but also and, more importantly, preserves the meat, giving it a longer and more stable shelf-life.
Truly uncured meats are prone to uncontrolled growth of dangerous pathogens responsible for foodborne illness, such as botulism. In fact, the use of synthetic sodium nitrite in meat products was in large part driven by the need to inhibit Clostridium botulinum bacteria,18 and research has shown that the higher the sodium nitrite level in the processed meat, the greater the inhibition of C. botulinum.19,20,21
As noted in “Investigating the Microbiological Safety of Uncured No Nitrate or Nitrite Added Processed Meat Products,” a 2010 graduate thesis and dissertation by Armitra Lavette Jackson:22
“Natural and organic processed meats may require additional protective measures in order to consistently provide the same level of safety from bacterial pathogens that is achieved by conventionally cured meat products.”
Celery Powder Just as Hazardous as Synthetic Nitrates
The conundrum here is that while organic processed meats are generally thought to be healthier, and “uncured” or “nitrate free” especially so, as Consumer Reports points out there’s really no difference between synthetic nitrates and (conventionally-grown) celery powder in terms of their ability to morph into carcinogenic compounds.
Since organic celery powder simply doesn’t have the functional attributes of conventional celery powder, they’re not interchangeable.23 But even more importantly, even if a functional organic celery powder could be produced, the nitrates will still render the organic meat carcinogenic in character, as you cannot remove the protein from the meat. (Remember, carcinogenic nitrosamines are a byproduct of nitrites combining with protein.)
So, here’s the problem in a nutshell: Organic processed meats are not allowed to be cured with synthetic nitrates, as the danger of nitrosamines are widely recognized.
But “natural” nitrate in the form of celery powder is permitted, and this despite the fact that conventional celery is loaded with synthetic high-nitrogen fertilizer,24 and the net effect on health is identical.
In addition to synthetic fertilizer, nonorganic celery powder may also contain traces of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. For these reasons, organic leaders insist celery powder must be taken off the organic exemption list.25
Since 2016, the University of Wisconsin in collaboration with The Organic Center and the Organic Trade Association have been working to identify organic crops that might serve as suitable curing agents to replace nonorganic celery powder.26 As of yet, no suitable replacement has been found though.
Beyond Pesticides Weighs In
In its September 17, 2019, comment27 to the National Organic Standards Board, Beyond Pesticides urged the board not to relist celery powder (along with several other nonorganic ingredients). The many reasons for their objection to retaining celery powder on the list of approved ingredients in organic foods are summarized as follows:
“Beyond Pesticides opposes the relisting of celery powder. Its production in chemical-intensive agriculture results in health and environmental hazards.
In considering the relisting of celery powder on §205.606, the NOSB must consider (a) whether its use is a direct violation of OFPA [Organic Foods Production Act] and the regulations, and (b) whether the hazards associated with the added nitrate/nitrite exposure — in addition to the hazards associated with nonorganic celery production — result in a failure to meet OFPA criteria.
The use of celery powder is a way of artificially adding nitrate as a preservative at levels not possible to achieve through use of organic celery. Nitrates pose dangers to health when artificially enhanced in food.”
Beyond Pesticides Launches New Investigative Arm
Beyond Pesticides’ comment was prepared shortly before the launch of its investigative arm, OrganicEye,28 led by organic policy experts Mark Kastel, founder of The Cornucopia Institute, Terry Shistar, Ph.D., a former member of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, and Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides.
This new watchdog organization “will focus on defending the time-honored philosophy and legal definition of organic farming and food production from USDA’s systemic failure to protect the interests of organic farmers, ethical businesses, and consumers.”29
The issue of nonorganic celery powder in organic foods is just one area of focus for OrganicEye. Others include the use of genetically engineered ingredients in organics, and concentrated animal feeding operations being passed off as organic.30
The group is also urging farmers, farmworkers, government employees and food industry insiders to share what you know. All information shared will be kept in strict confidence. Contact information can be found on OrganicEye’s tips page.31 With regard to celery powder, OrganicEye noted in a recent press release:
“In terms of functionality and human health impacts celery powder is virtually indistinguishable from the synthetic preservatives it is replacing based on a growing body of research. The World Health Organization classifies processed meats a ‘known human carcinogen.’
‘The continued use of this material in organic meat is in conflict with the law that requires all synthetic and non-organic ingredients to be safe for the environment and human health,’ Kastel added.
‘Organic food is supposed to be the most easily-accessible safe haven for mothers and fathers shopping for ingredients for their children’s lunch. Quite frankly, industrial, turbocharged celery powder just does not cut the mustard.’”
As for processed meats, your best bet is to avoid it. Remember that this includes deli meats of all kinds as well, not just hotdogs and sausages. The key take-home message is that it doesn’t matter whether its 100% organic and/or “nitrite-free.”
It still contains nitrites, the health effects of which — as OrganicEye points out, — include the blood disorder methemoglobinemia, high blood pressure, increased risk of pregnancy complications, adverse reproductive effects and cancer.32