Processed meat nitrates linked to higher cancer risk

20-03-2018 | |
Bacon, before it is cooked. Photo: Jonathunder
Bacon, before it is cooked. Photo: Jonathunder

Scientists in Northern Ireland say they have found a connection between nitrates and nitrites used in the curing process for processed meats and chemicals that can cause an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Research at Queen’s University in Belfast, UK, recently published in a report by Dr Marie Cantwell and Prof Chris Elliott has revealed that there is a direct link between nitrates used to produce bacon and dangerous nitrosamines. The findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics.

Nitrate and nitrite in pork

Nitrate and nitrite are used as additives to improve food quality and protect against microbial contamination. They are sources of N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) which are known carcinogens, a substance capable of causing cancer in living tissue.

However, the report shows that a wide range of factors affect the formation of the NOCs including the amount of nitrite added, meat quality, fat content, processing, packaging and how the meat is handled at home.

Consumption of bacon and contracting cancer

Prof Chris Elliott from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University said: “The latest research at Queen’s University Belfast has shown that there is a direct link between nitrites and the formation of nitrosamines.

“This means that when people consume bacon, which is currently cured with nitrites in the UK, they could be increasing their risk of contracting cancer.

“From a health perspective, it is certainly beneficial to reduce our intake of nitrates and nitrites from processed meat. It is estimated that more than 50% of bowel cancer cases are preventable and lifestyle changes such as improved diet could help,” he added.

Alternatives to using nitrates and nitrites

However, there are some alternatives to using nitrates and nitrites as the research from Queen’s suggests that green tea polyphenols could be used as a healthier alternative in the processing stages. They can also improve the quality, shelf life and safety of processed meat products.

Prof Elliott: “It is possible and feasible to use natural alternatives to nitrates and nitrites. For example, green tea polyphenols could be utilised for processing dry cured bacon. These innovative meat products could potentially contribute to a reduction in cancer risk by reducing nitrite in processed meats and should be explored further,” he said.

One meat processing company in Northern Ireland, Finnebrogue, has already launched a range of bacon and ham that is nitrite free and claims it is a world-first.

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Chris McCullough Freelance multi-media journalist