A recent story in the Guardian newspaper raised concerns about the use of nitrates and nitrites in foods, particularly cured meats, including bacon and ham.
There are differences of opinion amongst the scientific community about the use of nitrates and nitrites for food colouring and shelf-life preservation. While some argue that they can be carcinogenic, others advocate a different opinion and point to their positive attributes, particularly in lowering blood pressure.
Nitrates occur naturally in the human body and in a number of foods as well as water, and are permitted for use in colouring and giving life to processed meat products. Nitrates and nitrites are valuable and tightly regulated food additives, and the most recent re-evaluation of their use by the European Food Safety Authority in 2017 deemed them to be safe to use at approved levels and conditions. The permitted levels in cured meats have been consistently reduced over the years to minimise any excess presence in finished products, while recognising their important role in food safety, and in the palatability and shelf-life of traditional meat products.
However, the biggest source of nitrate exposure is dietary consumption of certain types of vegetables which are naturally high in nitrate, followed by drinking water. However, these vegetables also contain compounds that prevent the formation of N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) which are known to cause cancer. Studies assessing connections between nitrate and cancer in humans have focused on excess exposure from drinking water or food grown in areas where use of nitrogen-based fertilizers is common.
The arguments about the use of nitrates and nitrites in food and drink are complex and contrary, suggesting that the risks relate to excessive consumption of these chemicals rather than their general use.
Our industry will continue to follow the guidance of the Food Standards Agency on this topic to ensure the safety and enjoyment of food products such as bacon, ham and other cured meats. In addition, we are listening to the advice from such expert bodies as the European Food Safety Authority and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, an international scientific expert committee that is administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).