The North American Meat Institute has released a “Media MythCrusher” that they hope will help clarify the role of sodium nitrite in cured meats. From what I understand the substance prevents the growth of botulism bacteria. It also contributes to the characteristic pink color of meats like ham and salami. In some circles, sodium nitrite has long been vilified as a “known carcinogen”, despite the fact that numerous scientific panels have evaluated its safety and concluded it’s not only safe, it’s an essential public health tool due to its bacteria inhibiting properties. The National Toxicology Program, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, conducted a multi-year study to evaluate sodium nitrite’s safety and found that the substance was safe at all of the current levels used. It’s not entirely incorrect to say it can be deadly though. Without a doubt, nitrite can be poisonous, but only when consumed in huge quantities. Massive doses of it can lead to a condition called methemoglobinemia. Most common in infants, the condition occurs when nitrite in the blood deactivates hemoglobin, which allows red blood cells to carry oxygen. Under certain conditions, small amounts of nitrite can form nitrosamines, which have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. In an effort to minimize nitrosamine formation, the USDA limits sodium nitrite to a ratio of 200 parts per million. Keep in mind, this comes despite the fact that nitrite sodium used as a preservative has been found to be completely safe, and actually no different than the nitrite found in vegetables. Yes, nitrite is a naturally occurring substance in vegetables, which in some even exceeds the USDA’s limits. Scientists say that 93 percent of human nitrite intake comes from vegetables, particularly root vegetables such as celery, beets, carrots, spinach and lettuce. Humans also get regular doses from their own saliva, thanks to the bodies own natural nitrogen cycle. On average, less than 5% of human nitrite intake comes from cured meats. In the NAMI’s release, they are asking professionals that write about food issues to be mindful of those statistics and how key words are used when describing nitrite so as not to further perpetuate confusion or outright misinformation. You can read their full press releaseHERE.