eat green leafy vegetables or swallow our own saliva, which is enriched in nitrate and
nitrite.” According to Bryan, fruits and vegetables contribute far more nitrite and nitrate to human daily intake than cured meats. For example, a person would derive 100
times as much nitrite from the modern elixir pomegranate juice than from a hot dog.
While much attention is focused on epidemiogical studies, critical findings from
the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) seem forgotten just eight years after they
“…proper cooking is vital to food
safety and the acute risk posed by
potential bacterial pathogens in food.”
were published. An NTP review panel found that sodium nitrite, even when fed to rats
and mice at levels well beyond that used in cured meats, is not a carcinogen. Interestingly, a careful analysis of NTP’s data also showed that nitrite protected against some
of the very cancers that epidemiologists had earlier suggested it caused, like brain cancer and leukemia.
NTP’s findings don’t surprise Bryan. His studies have uncovered nitrite’s cardiovascular and other health benefits. According to Bryan, nitrite can prevent injury from a
heart attack and can also act as an active source of nitric oxide within the body. Bryan
said that preliminary research at his university is showing that when nitrite has been
applied directly to tumor cell lines, it does not promote tumor growth. And when
ascorbate (vitamin C) is added along with the nitrite, cell growth is inhibited (
ascorbate is routinely added along with nitrite in cured meats).
Bryan’s encouraging research mirrors findings at the National Institutes of Health
where Dr. Mark Gladwin has also published studies about nitrite’s value as a medical
treatment. “The idea it’s bad for you has not played out,” Gladwin told USA Today.
As nitrite’s human health benefits are uncovered, Bryan and others say it’s critical
to remember why nitrite is added to cured meats in the first place: food safety. Nitrite
prevents the growth of Clostridium botulinum and its subsequent toxin formation,
which can cause the deadly foodborne disease botulism. Nitrite also inhibits the
growth of Listeria monocytogenes if it is present in ready-to-eat meats.
PAHs and HCAs
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterycylic amines (HCAs) are
chemicals that can be formed in meat when proteins are heated to high temperatures.
Certain HCAs and PAHs have been shown to be carcinogenic in lab animals. However, the outstanding issue is the following: how much exposure do meats cooked to
high temperatures provide to the average consumer? And, how much exposure is
needed to cause an increase in risk to humans?
During an IAFP presentation in August 2008, Arthur Miller, Ph.D., senior managing scientist of the food and chemicals practices at Exponent, a nutrition consulting
and research firm, said “Information to date indicates that HCAs/PAHs are found in
parts per billion levels in some cooked muscle foods, but present a very low cancer
risk for U.S. consumers.” He cautioned that any risk cannot be viewed in isolation:
proper cooking is vital to food safety and the acute risk posed by potential bacterial
pathogens in food.
Miller also noted that in August 2008, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA)
found after extensive review that there is a low risk to consumers from PAHs in foods
based on average dietary exposure. The EFSA report also highlights a long list of commonly consumed food that contain significant levels of PAHs, including cereals, vegetable oils, coffee and certain seafood and smoked or cooked meat products.
So What is the Best Advice?
In the face of the diet and cancer debate, it’s instructive to refer to the U.S.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans that
recommend, “Consume a variety of nu-trient-dense foods and beverages within
and among the basic food groups while
choosing foods that limit the intake of
saturated and trans fats, cholesterol,
added sugars, salt and alcohol. Meet recommended intakes within energy needs
by adopting a balanced eating pat-tern….” The Guidelines also stress the
importance of physical activity.
Just last year, the American Dietetic
Association echoed this message in a
statement about fad weight loss diets.
“Countless reputable studies over many
years have shown balance and variety
are needed for good health. Any diet
that requires you to give up whole categories of foods…is by definition, unbalanced.”
When it comes to cancer, there
clearly is no clear and singular cause
and, tragically, there is no easy prevention or treatment. These basic facts understandably drive us to seek a factor to
blame and meat has become a target for
many. This singular focus on limited
studies showing theoretical risk may ultimately lead to public policies and practices that shun a food that clearly has
much to offer in terms of valuable nutrition, satiety and weight control, delivering important nutrients including
vitamin B12, iron, zinc and vitamin D
and, in the case of one of our common
ingredients—sodium nitrite—even promoting wellness.
It’s time to confront the facts fear-
lessly lest we run fearfully, and danger- ously, in the wrong direction.
Randall D. Huffman, Ph.D., joined the
American Meat Institute (AMI) Foundation
in January 2000 as Vice President of Scientific Affairs and was promoted to President
of the AMI Foundation in April of 2008.
Prior to joining AMI, Huffman was director
of technical services at Koch Industries,
Inc. Huffman received a B.Sc. in animal science from Auburn University; an M.S. and
Ph.D. in animal sciences, with specialization
in meat science from the University of