Are Cured Meats Safe to Eat?

board of ham, bacon and sliced sausage

The Bottom Line

The “curing” process involves the addition of nitrates and nitrites to meats. While swallowing large amounts of nitrates or nitrites can be dangerous, exposure to the levels typically present in meats is not likely to be harmful.

couple eating cured sausage hanging on a line

The Full Story

Human consumption of organic, natural, and minimally processed foods has increased dramatically in recent years, and this is likely due to our overall desire to eat healthier and live longer. Many grocery stores offer wide selections of natural foods, which do not contain artificial flavors, colors, or chemical preservatives.

Uncured or naturally cured meats are often considered to be a healthier alternative to traditional cured meats. The process of curing involves the addition of nitrites or nitrates and salt to meat, to enhance food preservation and reduce bacterial contamination. Nitrites in particular are very effective at killing harmful bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum and Listeria monocytogenes. Because of these antimicrobial properties, the use of sodium nitrite as a meat curing agent was initially authorized by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1925, and since then there have been no reported cases of botulism associated with commercially prepared cured meats such as ham, bologna, and bacon. However, the use of traditional curing methods involving nitrites or nitrates prevents these meats from being labeled as organic or natural.

Some people are concerned about the safety of the use of nitrates and nitrites in the meat curing process. In addition to being used as curing agents, nitrates and nitrites are common components of a healthy human diet. Approximately 80% of our daily nitrate intake comes from eating vegetables, and our gastrointestinal system helps to convert nitrates to nitrites. While both dietary vegetable intake and the addition of small amounts of nitrates and nitrites to meat products can have beneficial effects on our health, the consumption of larger amounts of nitrates or nitrites can be poisonous. The United States Food and Drug Administration has established regulations concerning the amounts of nitrates and nitrites that can be safely added to meats and fish. People who swallow larger amounts of these products may develop a potentially life-threatening condition called methemoglobinemia. Nitrosamines are chemicals derived from nitrates and nitrites; long-term exposure to high levels of these chemicals has been associated with the development of cancer. 

Since most people do not eat large amounts of cured meats on a daily basis, the adverse health risks of occasional exposures to nitrates, nitrites, or nitrosamines are unlikely to be significant. To avoid additional exposures to nitrites and nitrates, some people may prefer to eat uncured or naturally cured meats. Many “uncured” meats are treated with vegetable byproducts such as celery juice instead of nitrates or nitrites. The use of celery or other vegetable juices, instead of nitrates or nitrites, allows meat producers to meet labeling regulations for organic or natural meat products, but may also result in an increased risk of bacterial contamination. Interestingly, since vegetables are an excellent dietary source of nitrates, the use of “natural” meat curing processes involving vegetable juices will still lead to the presence of nitrates and nitrites in people who consume uncured or naturally cured meat products. Since people who eat uncured meats are still exposed to nitrates and nitrites, there’s likely little health benefit to be gained from eating uncured meats instead of cured meats.

For questions about poisonings from cured meats, get help online with webPOISONCONTROL or call 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free for the public, and available 24 hours a day.

Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD
Medical Toxicologist

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Eat a balanced diet, including fruits and vegetables as well as protein sources.
  • Limit your consumption of processed or cured meats, to reduce long-term exposures to nitrosamines.
  • Avoid non-dietary exposures to nitrates and nitrites, as these products can be poisonous when swallowed.

This Really Happened

Five adults of Middle Eastern descent developed dizziness, lightheadedness, and bluish discoloration of the skin after eating the same meal. They were taken to an Emergency Department where all were diagnosed with methemoglobinemia and treated with the appropriate antidote. The victims recalled that the shared meal they consumed before they became ill included meat, rice, and vegetables. The victims also recalled that they had boiled salt water and used it during the cooking process. High levels of sodium nitrite were subsequently detected in the meat, rice, and vegetables. The salt that had been added to the boiling water was tested and was found to contain 100% sodium nitrite. An investigation revealed that the sodium nitrite had been originally purchased and used for curing meats, and had been improperly stored in a bag labeled “Refined Iodized Table Salt”.

For More Information

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/the-uncured-bacon-illusion-its-actually-cured-and-its-not-better-for-you/2019/04/19/0c89630c-608c-11e9-9ff2-abc984dc9eec_story.html 

For questions about food poisoning or exposures to spoiled food, get help online at www.poison.org or call 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free for the public, and available 24 hours a day.


References

American Meat Science Association. Natural and organic cured meat products: regulatory, manufacturing, marketing, quality and safety issues. [Accessed 10.19.21].

Brantsæter AL, Ydersbond TA, Hoppin JA, Haugen M, Meltzer HM. Organic Food in the Diet: Exposure and Health Implications. Annu Rev Public Health. 2017 Mar 20;38:295-313.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Methemoglobinemia following unintentional ingestion of sodium nitrite--New York, 2002. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2002 Jul 26;51(29):639-42.

Hord NG, Tang Y, Bryan NS. Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jul;90(1):1-10.

Myers MI, Sebranek JG, Dickson JS, Shaw AM, Tarté R, Adams KR, Neibuhr S. Implications of Decreased Nitrite Concentrations on Clostridium perfringens Outgrowth during Cooling of Ready-to-Eat Meats. J Food Prot. 2016 Jan;79(1):153-6.

North American Meat Institute. Meat curing and sodium nitrite. [Accessed 10.19.21].

US Food and Drug administration. CFR- Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. [Accessed 10.19.21]. 

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Eat a balanced diet, including fruits and vegetables as well as protein sources.
  • Limit your consumption of processed or cured meats, to reduce long-term exposures to nitrosamines.
  • Avoid non-dietary exposures to nitrates and nitrites, as these products can be poisonous when swallowed.

This Really Happened

Five adults of Middle Eastern descent developed dizziness, lightheadedness, and bluish discoloration of the skin after eating the same meal. They were taken to an Emergency Department where all were diagnosed with methemoglobinemia and treated with the appropriate antidote. The victims recalled that the shared meal they consumed before they became ill included meat, rice, and vegetables. The victims also recalled that they had boiled salt water and used it during the cooking process. High levels of sodium nitrite were subsequently detected in the meat, rice, and vegetables. The salt that had been added to the boiling water was tested and was found to contain 100% sodium nitrite. An investigation revealed that the sodium nitrite had been originally purchased and used for curing meats, and had been improperly stored in a bag labeled “Refined Iodized Table Salt”.