The debate surrounding the potential health dangers of nitrites — the chemical used to preserve processed meats — has been going on for 40 years. Some reports debunk concerns, citing that vegetables contain higher naturally occurring concentrations of nitrates (nitrite precursors). But vegetables also have compounds that help neutralize the conversion of nitrites to nitrosamines — the carcinogenic form.
Recent evidence suggests that consuming processed meats does raise your risk for gastric, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Other research shows an increased risk for brain tumors among children whose mothers ate large quantities of cured meat during pregnancy.
Even as the jury tosses around its final verdict, avoiding processed meats is your best bet. At the very least, minimize and modify your intake with these tips:
Go with nitrite/nitrate-free meats, usually found in health food stores.
Avoid frying any meat at high temperatures. The quick-burning method tends to stimulate the formation of nitrosamines. Bake or broil instead.
Eat cooked vegetables immediately. Bacterial buildup speeds the conversion of nitrates to nitrites.
Go organic. Chemically fertilized crops may absorb higher levels of nitrogen, which can increase their vulnerability to nitrite formation.
Get your vitamin C. Ascorbic acid actually inhibits the development of nitrosamine. Enjoy a glass of OJ with your bacon or tomato slices on your ham sandwich to help counter some of the effects.