Nitrites are used in prepared meats (and other food products) as a preservative and color fixative. By using them, jerky, hot dogs and similar products can last for months.
But this convenience, unfortunately, comes at a price. Previously nitrites have been linked to cancer, since under certain conditions they can be turned into carcinogens. Now in a startling new study, evidence suggests they may also be a factor in the rising rates of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. So unfortunately its another case of where industrial food gained some production benefits…but at what cost? Is some extra shelf life and improved color worth the risk? No doubt we’ll be getting some additional studies telling us how safe they are, but who knows, perhaps as time goes on nitrites will go the way of other food additive miracles, like trans fats, remember them? They were in everything, and no one mentioned any potential health risks, then all of a sudden..poof! Almost overnight every product proudly displayed the 100% trans fat free seal. There is a bigger issue here regarding science and nutrition. It seems like every year or so what was safe is found to be dangerous (remember margirine was good, butter bad? how’d that turn out?), of course you could always play it safe and just stick to natural foods!
Well, with nitrites we’re not waiting for any more research, we strive to eat food that doesn’t have any sodium nitrates or sodium nitrites (or any preservatives, additives, high fructose corn syrup etc. like our prepared beef products) playing it safe and natural is the safe way. A general rule of thumb is that the less processed/additives in food the better.