Lie — Nitrites in food will give you cancer

The Story

Food manufacturers add nitrites to their products to give them a more attractive look and taste, and to preserve them so they'll last longer on the shelves.

These added chemicals react with meat protein to create nitrosamines, which are known to cause cancer.

We can avoid this danger by eating only organic and all-natural meat.


It's true that food manufacturers add nitrites to their products to give them a more attractive look and taste, and to preserve them so they'll last longer on the shelves. And they do so with good reason. Would you want to eat corned-beef or bologna that rather than being pink are dull brown or gray? Would you want to eat processed meat that has a good chance of containing listeria or other possibly fatal bacteria? Would you want all the processed or precooked meat that you eat to come in cans and looks like a gray version of Spam?

It's true that nitrates will turn into nitrites, and they in turn can, under the right conditions, combine with protein to form nitrosamines. But those conditions are very specific and easily avoided (e.g. don't cook bacon until it is black). But even then, the increased risk of developing cancer is very small, far smaller than the risk of fatal bacterial contamination that the nitrites prevent.

But it's definitely not true that we can avoid nitrites by eating only organic and all-natural meat.

Foods are labelled organic to indicate the local conditions under which they were grown. It doesn't in any way guarantee that the product itself is any better or different from non-organic food, no more than ethical coffee is intrinsically better than other coffee. The organic and ethical labels simply allow you to support farmers that avoid petrochemical fertilizers and pay decent wages to their workers. They are personal moral choices, not necessarily healthful food choices.

As for all-natural, that too is pointless. Most vegetables naturally contain nitrates, and our own digestive processes quickly turn those nitrates into nitrites. Some vegetables, such as celery, contain so much nitrate that the manufacturers can let the celery ferment, naturally converting the nitrates into nitrites. This all-natural product is extracted and used in the all-natural processed meat, which can legally claim no added nitrites despite the addition of this celery extract.

The nitrites in celery extract are chemically identical to the nitrites purchased from chemical suppliers and are chemically identical to the nitrites that your own body produces. Yet you are expected to believe that calling it all-natural celery extract makes it so much better for you.

But avoiding nitrites is even more hopeless than that. Even if you carefully check every ingredient on everything you eat and actually manage to avoid all nitrites from every possible source, it won't do any good. Almost all food naturally contains nitrates, and the first thing your body does with those nitrates is to convert them into nitrites. In fact, even if you do eat large amounts of nitrite containing food, they will still make up a small fraction of the total nitrites in your body. But that's okay; nitrites are good for you, as they help kill harmful bacteria in your body.

The only real risk associated with eating nitrites is eating overcooked food in which the nitrites have become burnt. So just stop burning your food and enjoy it.


When it was reported that meat protein and nitrites heated to very high temperatures can produce nitrosamines, consumption of which can increase one's risk of cancer, some people heard it as nitrites cause cancer, didn't bother to investigate how minimal the effect is or how dangerous not adding nitrites to processed meat is, and passed this misinformation on to others.

Marketing people love such truthful lies, and they quickly adopted it.

Food packages that prominently display no added nitrites sell better. It doesn't matter that the food itself is full of naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites, or that the food contains celery extract, which itself is full of nitrites; it's the consumer perception and increased sales that count in the end.