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Salt vs. Sodium Nitrate

Warning: This post is going to get salty. Specifically sodium nitrate and its cousin sodium nitrite. And full disclaimer, I know these are different chemical compounds, but will still use them interchangeably because I’m human. A quick Internet search will bring up scores of articles about how sodium nitrate is a terrible additive used in factory-processed foods, guaranteed to cause cancer. Basically it’s the devil incarnate, white walkers, Pennywise the clown, and the shark from Jaws all rolled into one. It’s evil death salt, kryptonite to the natural foods movement.

But is it really? First of all, the studies that supposedly said sodium nitrate causes cancer is wildly misrepresented. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the data is unreliable and there is a less than one percent chance that eating sodium nitrate contributes to cancer. So given that we don’t know it causes cancer what do we know about sodium nitrate? It is a proven safeguard against botulism. This particularly nasty bacterium is often found in improperly canned or preserved goods and attacks your nervous system. If you have a stronger stomach than I do, there are terrifying pictures of people who’ve suffered from this dreadful condition readily available online. One look and you’ll applaud anything that prevents that horrible disease. Another use for our clostridium botulinum-killing friend is as a food colorant. It gives meats that perky pink color that we’ve been conditioned to believe is natural. Natural bacon is actually a beige-gray color that I can tell you from personal experience looks revolting.

Now you’re thinking I have had nitrate free bacon and it was not 50 Shades of Nasty. And you’re almost right. You can’t just say something is evil without providing an alternative; that’s a wasted marketing opportunity. “Natural Alternatives” to sodium nitrate have been created that color the meat just as well, but food scientists aren’t sure how they rank on the safety aspect. These alternatives are derived from fruits and vegetables: celery, kale, and beets. (Fun fact – there are more naturally occurring nitrates in a kale salad than a pound of bacon.) But how natural can something be when it has been so processed as to lose all of its original color and flavor? My answer is not very.

Alternatives to sodium nitrate may be popular and trendy but I am not a fan. We have been forced by market demand to use a product that I (and the food scientists I’ve spoken to) don’t believe is safe. And that is going to change. We are planning to reintroduce sodium nitrate into our products. We want to make safe and delicious sausages and charcuterie and the best way to do that is to use a curing salt, not a highly bleached and processed powder that used to be a vegetable.

I understand this is a highly emotional topic, so before you come at me with pitchforks please do your research. And don’t just check one website. I didn’t. I would never presume to lecture people about their health and wellness without talking to professionals and doing a lot of research. This is not a decision we are entering into lightly, but we want to make the best product as safely as possible. Sodium nitrate makes that possible. And if this makes you gulp in horror, please remember there is sodium nitrate in saliva so do be careful!