What are nitrites and nitrates, these food additives accused of being carcinogenic?

What are nitrites and nitrates, these food additives accused of being carcinogenic?

Nitrates and nitrites are used as food additives in meats and sometimes cheeses, but they increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.

They had been controversial for several years. But health authorities stepped up to the plate on Tuesday against nitrites and nitrates, saying these food additives increase the risk of developing cancer.

In an opinion published on July 12, the National Health Security Agency (Anses) establishes for the first time a link between the consumption of nitrites and the disease. “The analysis of the bibliographic data confirms the existence of an association between the risks of colorectal cancer [du gros intestin] and exposure to ingested nitrates and nitrites via processed meat,” the agency writes.

Nitrates in water and vegetables

But what are these two compounds? Nitrate is a naturally occurring substance in some vegetables, especially leafy ones like spinach or lettuce, and in water.

In small quantities, it does not pose a problem. But its rate is controlled, in particular by water treatment plants, because it tends to proliferate due to the use of nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture in particular. The excess of nitrates is notably responsible for the famous “green tides” in Brittany for example.

Nitrites in charcuterie

As for nitrites, they have been used for a long time by the food industry for the preservation of food, and in particular charcuterie. Cooked hams, lardoons or sausages contain them, because they make it possible to lengthen the shelf life and to avoid the risk of diseases such as botulism, listeriosis or salmonellosis. They also give the ham its beautiful pink color.

This use is supervised: in France, butchers cannot exceed an incorporation rate of 120 mg per kilo, a stricter regulation than that set at European level, at 150 mg per kilo.

Why are they a problem for our health?

When nitrates are ingested, they can be transformed into nitrites under the effect of bacterial enzymes. And in case of excess nitrites in the blood, the red blood cells can no longer transport oxygen, which can lead to asphyxiation.

In addition, nitrates and nitrites can evolve in our body and form nitrosated compounds, some of which are known to be genotoxic and carcinogenic, warns ANSES.

Beware of labels promising “zero added nitrites”

Even before the ANSES report, which clearly establishes a danger to our health, nitrites were already suspected of causing cancer. Many manufacturers had then marketed hams guaranteed to be nitrite-free.

But the health agency warns against the products they use instead: “plant extracts”, or “vegetable broths”, which naturally contain nitrates. “These so-called ‘no added nitrite’ or ‘zero nitrite’ products therefore contain hidden nitrates and nitrites”, writes ANSES.

Towards a new law this fall?

The government reacted quickly to the ANSES report, announcing on Tuesday an “action plan” from this fall. He wishes to reduce or eliminate the use of nitro additives “in all food products where this is possible without health impact”, indicates a press release from the Ministries of Health and Agriculture.

Will the executive go so far as to ban nitrites and nitrates used in additives, as requested by the Foodwatch association and the League against cancer, which have launched a petition? ANSES asks for its part to limit “as much as possible” their use in food.

Pay attention to quantities and labels

In the meantime, the health agency recommends that we eat no more than 150 grams of cold cuts (the equivalent of three slices of ham), and no more than 500 grams of red meat (excluding poultry) per person and per week. As for vegetables, which contain nitrates, they “contain vitamins and minerals essential for the proper functioning of our body. We must therefore continue to consume them while diversifying them and varying the sources of supply”, writes ANSES.

Finally, if you want to be sure to buy deli meats without nitrates and nitrites, you have to decipher the labels to check if they mention the presence of E249 (potassium nitrite), E250 (sodium nitrite), E251 (sodium nitrate) or E252 (potassium nitrate). Applications allow you to scan the barcode of a product to find out if it contains harmful additives, such as Yuka or WhichProduct.

Melissa Galbraith
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.