Skip This Meat If You're Concerned About Nitrates

Nitrates in the modern human food chain, some natural and some added, get a bad rap. But is it deserved? That depends on several factors, including the source and how much you eat. There's also a difference between nitrates and nitrites, and it's not just the spelling — that a/i vowel variation expands the conversation. In a nutshell, that scary "nitrates" word, which is associated with an increased risk of developing cancer, actually refers to compounds that occur naturally in your body, per Healthline. They're also inherently tucked within some healthy vegetables, including spinach, lettuce, carrots, and bok choy cabbages, explains WebMD. So when consumed in this pure form, nitrates can in fact help reduce negative health conditions, including cancer.

The seemingly conflicted information really comes down to how your body processes the natural-versus-added nitrates and where the added ones originate. The culprits for negative health are nitrates added while processing certain foods, which can be converted from nitrates to nitrites in your gut biome, causing an increased cancer risk. So it's all about recognizing and limiting your consumption of certain meats.

The meat with the highest number of nitrates may surprise you, so get ready for a dietary reconsideration. Hint: It doesn't arrive on your plate in long, crispy strips.

A lunchbox favorite, reconsidered

Many consumers know about nitrates in bacon and hot dogs with some brands even touting "no added nitrates" or "uncured," which in theory means no nitrates are injected during processing. Many types of deli meats contain nitrates, even so-called "uncured" versions, explains WebMD. But one very popular meat, which crowns holiday tables and everyday lunchboxes, carries at least double the amount of nitrates per gram than bacon and far more than deli meats and hot dogs. That would be those delicious pink slices of ham in your refrigerator.

Measured in micrograms per serving, ham packs an extraordinary 890 mcg of nitrates in a 100 g serving. This compares to 380 mcg per an equal serving of cured bacon and 500 mcg in deli meats. French legislators in 2022 targeted the gradual reduction or phasing out of nitrites in cured meats, including ham, per Reuters. This growing trend of eliminating these preservatives springs at least partially from a 2015 World Health Organization classification of processed meat as a carcinogen when consumed by humans, particularly leading to colorectal cancer.

There's a tradeoff to ditching nitrites found in ham, cold cuts, hot dogs, and more. Food suppliers add them for a reason, which comes down to shelf life. Healthline notes that these preservatives slow down bacteria growth while adding the salty flavor you crave. Alternatives do exist, just study the labels and be savvy about nitrates and preservatives in general.