Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska

Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska

Does Eating Processed Meat Cause Cancer?

June 27, 2013Food

True? Or Not? Sodium nitrites like those in processed meats cause cancer.

Dr. John Marchello classified this statement as False.

A glance at the ingredients label on a package of cured meat like ham or hotdogs probably lists sodium nitrite. This common preservative helps meats retain their color and also helps keep bacteria to a minimum. Recently, Best Food Facts received a question from reader Anne, asking about sodium nitrities in processed meats and cancer.

"Should I avoid processed meats because they contain sodium nitrites? If you eat sodium nitrities are you increasing the risk of cancer?"

To answer this question, we reached out to Dr. John Marchello, Professor of Meat Science and Muscle Biology, University of Arizona.

Dr. Marchello said sodium nitrites have been shown to be a vasodilator, which refers to the widening of the blood vessels, which helps reduce blood pressure. "Therefore, it is considered as a health benefit," Dr. Marchello said.

Dr. Marchello noted that nitrites in cured meat products are basically converted to nitrous oxide, which reacts with the myoglobin, a protein in the cured meat, to give the cured meat its characteristic color. "Very little nitrite remains in the cured meat product," Dr. Marchello said.

He did caution that if cured meat products are overcooked, nitrosamines (a compound that has been shown to be carcinogenic) can be formed, but one must consume a significant amount of nitrosamines to develop cancerous tissues within their body.

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