Sodium nitrite (E 250) is by far the most often applied additive in
the production of cured meat products in order to obtain the
desired curing colour.
Sodium nitrite falls apart into Na+ and
NO2- ions and nitrogen (nitric) oxide (NO) is
obtained out of NO2- in a chemical reaction
by nitrous acid (HNO2) being the intermediate
NO2 reacts with myoglobin ultimately forming the desired
curing colour. Nitrite also has a major impact in obtaining the
specific "flavor" in cured meat products where components,
originating from nitrite, react with sulphuric materials present in
Nitrite also acts as an antioxidant in meat products and is also a
very important hurdle against growth of countless harmful bacteria,
especially Clostridium botulinum and Listeria monocytogenes.
Those important facts secure nitrite its place within the
production of cured meat products. However, nitrite is highly toxic
by itself. Residual nitrite in cured meat products contribute,
under certain conditions, to the formation of nitrosamines, which
are known to be carcinogenic.
Because of its toxicity and the potential of forming nitrosamine,
stringent rules are in place all over the world to secure the
addition of nitrite to meat products at a level "as much as needed"
to fulfill its technological functions but keeping the level as low
as possible at the same time.
On the other hand, those facts also provide a platform to invent
'healthy' meat products by the removal, or reduction, of nitrite
within a meat product.
Recently, cured meat products such as raw fermented salami, cooked
sausages and cooked ham came on to the market by being promoted as
"naturally cured", "no nitrite added", "without added nitrite" or
even "nitrite free" clearly intended to give a "healthy image" of
such products to the consumer.
Such statements can be interpreted as purposely misleading the
consumer because materials such as celery- and cane sugar juice as
well as selected types of salt, which are high in "natural"
nitrate, are used in the production of such "healthy" meat
There is mounting speculation that soil, used for growing those
plants in first place, is enriched with nitrate to enhance the
level of "natural nitrate" within them.
The grey-zone starts when such "natural" nitrate is introduced into
meat products in conjunction with bacteria which are able to reduce
nitrate to nitrite. As a result, nitrite is obtained indirectly,
and present in the meat product forming the desired curing
Another misleading marketing-strategy of such a process is that
nitrite normally, when added directly to meat during processing, is
most often declared as "preservative" on the label of the meat
By adding nitrite "indirectly" it does not need to be declared on
the label of the product and the term "preservative" therefore can
be avoided on the label.
In most countries the term "preservative" in a meat product is not
well liked. Nitrate-containing vegetable or plant juices are most
often declared as "vegetable- or plant extract" whilst selected
salt, high in natural nitrate, is simply declared as "salt" thus
covering up the addition of nitrate.
The grey-zone here is the nitrite ion NO2-
obtained out of the reduction of nitrate, which was introduced into
meat through the addition of nitrate-containing plant extracts, or
salt being high in "natural" nitrate, is of the same chemical
composition as if nitrite would have been added directly to meat in
Therefore, this material also has the potential to form
nitrosamines. As a result, the health benefit as portrayed to the
consumer that "no nitrite is added" is not exactly the entire
The described process of obtaining nitrite out of nitrate is just
another way of introducing nitrite into meat, with all its desired
technological functions, but without having to declare nitrite on
the label of the product.
Another point quite often being brought into the discussion is the
level of nitrite introduced and present in a meat product by adding
"natural" nitrate-containing materials is much lower as if nitrite
would have been added directly.
This is true to a certain point but the original marketing strategy
of using terms such as "no added nitrite" gives a message to the
consumer that no nitrite was introduced during processing and no
nitrite is present in the final product. This is not the
Despite all of the above ambiguities, the number of "naturally
cured" or "no added nitrite" meat products is on the rise. However,
authorities in a few countries have started discussions already on
how to regulate this topic further as they believe the consumer is
Those discussions are often based on an understanding that terms
such as "naturally cured" are more acceptable since the term
"cured" provides consumers with the information that nitrite is
present in the product.
On the other hand, terms such as "no added nitrite" are can easily
misled the consumer and are also technically incorrect since the
product is "cured", showing the typical curing colour, by the
introduction of nitrite regardless of the source of nitrite or the
method used to obtain nitrite.
Gerhard Feiner is a former factory and production manager. His
Meat Products Handbook, is published by Woodhead Publishing, based
in the UK.