Nitrites in Hot Dogs – So are hot dogs killing me?
Updated: Jan 10
So you may have seen the recent headlines claiming ‘Processed Meat Causes Cancer’ and even ‘Processed Meat is as Bad as Smoking’. So what exactly is it in these meat products that is thought to be so bad for us? And is it something we should worry about?
A lot of the research into the link between cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, and processed meat such as hot dogs and bacon looks at the presence of N-nitroso compounds or nitrites and nitrates. These compounds used in the preservation of meats are thought to be carcinogenic; increasing your chance of getting cancer.
So what are nitrites and nitrates?
Nitrates and nitrites, are naturally occurring chemical compounds which contain nitrogen and oxygen. In the production of meat products, they are used as part of the curing process, as preservatives helping to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. They also add a salty flavour and improve the appearance of the meat products by giving them a red or pink colour. Nitrates and nitrites themselves are pretty harmless but it is when they are exposed to high heats e.g. cooking, they can turn into nitrosamines which are the chemicals linked to cancer.
Why are nitrites bad for you?
Nitrites themselves aren’t the problem but it is when they are exposed to high heat, in the presence of amino acids (found in protein e.g. meat), they can turn into compounds called nitrosamines. It is these nitrosamines that have been found to be potent carcinogens; cancer causing compounds.
Nitrosamines are among the main cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke, hence the headline ‘Processed meat is as bad as smoking’. Because most bacon, hot dogs and processed meat tend to be high in nitrites and they're high protein foods (a source of amino acids), exposing them to high heat through cooking creates the perfect conditions for nitrosamine formation.
This is why it is believed that regularly eating processed meats is strongly linked to an increased risk of cancer in the digestive tract, and many people believe that the nitrates/nitrites are the reason for that.
A few years back, The World Health Organisations WHO advised that consuming 50g of processed meat a day – equivalent to just a couple of rashers of bacon or one hotdog – would raise the risk of getting bowel cancer by 18% over a lifetime.
What other foods contain nitrites?
As well as processed meats, a lot of ‘natural’, healthy foods actually contain nitrites. These include vegetables such as beetroot, spinach, rocket, celery and carrots. In fact 80% of dietary nitrites come from vegetables! But remember, nitrites themselves are pretty harmless and can
actually have some health benefits (e.g lower blood pressure). It is just when they are exposed to high heat in the presence of protein they become a problem. So unless you are roasting you veg on high temperatures alongside protein such as yogurt or nuts, you’re pretty safe!