Monthly Archives: January 2014

Go Loco Over Buying Local and Organic Food

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You can do “local and organic” in your own back yard!

The last blog talked about the health benefits of going organic. But you can buy organic produce from across the country and still miss out on the biggest benefit of all – getting the absolute most out of your organic produce by buying local.   Most produce is picked 4-7 days before it hits the shelves.  Meat can be up to 2 months old before it hits your plate.  Eggs can be 10 days old before they hit the shelf and have 28 days to be sold. The benefit of buying local as well as organic foods is that you shorten the time between harvesting and eating.   According to the Frozen Food Foundation  buying frozen produce does significantly decrease the degradation of food nutrients when you have little choice in colder climates and you can still buy organic.

Buying Local and Organic Food Is About Shrinking the Food System

Large agricultural food systems use processed feedlots, have different ways of slaughtering and processing meats, use pesticides or fertilizers in their production of animal feed, use hormones and antibiotics to speed growth and increase production that can decrease nutritive value, and use large distribution channels involving long transports and many middle men before the product gets to your store.  Produce from large farm systems is treated with pesticides and fertilizers that can pollute nearby watersheds and kill the natural microbes in the soil that improve the nutritive value of the produce.   They also can have higher contents of E Coli because the natural protection that the soil microbes provide is destroyed by the pesticides. This large food system means more delay between harvesting and eating.  Local organic food production and distribution networks involve a smaller food system.

When you buy local and organic farm products you are getting products produced in smaller food systems, raised in a more natural environment without the use of pesticides and fertilizers or feedlots, with more humane slaughtering, and processing and packaging done by the farmer with fewer middle men so it gets to your home quicker, fresher and with more of the nutrients in tact. Also, grass from pastures that are grazed uses more carbon dioxide from the air than any other forest or field and puts it back into the soil, thus decreasing the carbon footprint.  Cattle that are grass fed produce manure at a rate that can sustain and enrich the soil without overloading it with nitrogen and phosphorous and created a better grass root system preventing erosion. Grass fed beef produces less methane than cattle from feedlots.   And you are supporting your local economy by creating jobs and keeping profits for the local farms

The Best For Your Health, Local Economy and the Environment

When it comes to buying local and organic foods, the absolute best choice is to buy beef, pork, poultry and poultry products that are grown organically, pasture fed and local.   It’s more complicated when it comes to produce.  Ideally you want to buy organic, locally grown produce.  But in the winter in Maine the only thing you can get locally that is fresh are tomatoes, some root veggies, and some fresh greens from nearby greenhouses and farms.   I would consider  buying organic where it really counts.  Peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, berries, pears, grapes and spinach, in descending order, are the most important to buy organic.  The least contaminated produce are: onions, avocado, sweet frozen corn, pineapples, mangoes and asparagus.  Since most of these you can’t get locally in the winter, buy fruits like organic berries frozen.  Some fruits like bananas, oranges and pineapples have a thick peal that protect them from pesticides so it’s fine not buying these organic.   Buy organic root vegetables like parsnips, turnips, cabbage and carrots because they absorb pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.  They have a very late growing season in Maine so they are a good thing to get local throughout the winter at your local farmer’s market in Maine or the U.S. or a food cooperative in your state.   According to Mary Jasch of Dig It magazine, you can grow some vegetables year round in Maine’s climate if you follow her directions.  And probably the best choice for your health and your wallet is to start your own organic garden!  In a 6′ by 20′ area you can grow all the organic lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, and cucumbers you could ever eat for a season.  Plant some blueberry bushes and rhubarb – they need little maintenance and they freeze well.  There is nothing better than a bowl of warm blueberry rhubarb crisp topped with vanilla ice cream!

 

 

Eat Organic Where It Counts

Eating organic can be expensive, but then again, so is having cancer and diabetes.   Deciding to go organic requires becoming informed, and eventually deciding to invest in your “health 401k”.   In 1932 the US Department of Agriculture wanted to start raising chickens in factories where eggs and chickens could be massively produced.  They experimented with their diet and found that the hens that were confined and fed soy, grain and wheat products either stopped laying eggs or the chicks from the eggs had a high mortality rate.  When the hens were taken out of confinement and returned to pasture where they could eat their customary diet of grass, seeds and bugs, their eggs became healthy again.  Doesn’t it make you wonder what the low, but constant exposure to processed foods treated with hormones, antibiotics, fertilizers and pesticides might be doing to your body?  Perhaps eating organic now won’t make a difference today, but by middle age, if you’re not eating organic and you combine that with being overweight, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, leading a sedentary lifestyle and eating a diet high in processed foods and meat, don’t you wonder what the consequences will be in your future?

The US organic food industry has grown by 12% annually since 2010 due to increased awareness of the health, food safety, environmental and local economic impact of buying local and organic foods and animal products.   Understanding the benefits and what it means to be organic can help you to choose whether or not to eat organic.

What Does It Mean To Be “Organic” in Animal Products?

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This chicken could have been fed grains and candy and never seen the light of day. This kind of diet changes the desired Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio to the more unhealthy levels that promote obesity, diabetes and cancer

To be organic, animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must never have been treated with antibiotics or hormones.  The Sustainable Table website collected information on the terminology found on labels to help you better understand what a product is delivering.  To know you are getting the absolute best for your health, the environment and for the animal (isn’t a happy heifer a moooo-t point? ) you want to choose produce and animal products from organic, pasture fed, local and sustainable farms.  Do not think that a label that states “natural” comes close to meeting these criteria.  A Label stating “natural” only addresses what happens to the meat and poultry after the animal is dead and that nothing artificial has been added in the processing of it.  It does not mean that the animal, while it was alive, wasn’t given antibiotics or hormones.   In order to be labeled organic the food has to meet the USDA’s strict standards and be certified through a USDA agency.  To be organic the animal must never have been treated with antibiotics or hormones, poultry and pork are never treated with hormones by law anyway.  They must be fed organically grown foods, without the use of fertilizers or pesticides, and must have access to the outdoors.  However having “access to the outdoors” does not mean they actually may graze out there – a barn door might just be open.  To know your steak is coming from grass fed farms you want the label to also say pasture-raised or at least “pasture finished”.  Then you know the animal was eating the way nature intended it to eat – grass fed – and in a sustainable manner.  Sustainable means a closed loop cycle where the animal’s waste naturally fertilizes the soil, yielding better quality grass and no artificial fertilizers are used.  In cold climates, these animals are fed hay like our forefathers did hundreds of years ago.  This method creates less methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide than large animal farms where animals are fed sterilized city garbage, floor sweepings from plants that make animal food, candy, corn and other cheaper feeds that yield an unhealthier meat and poultry- and the animals do not live the way they were intended to live.

The Benefits of Eating Organic Poultry, Dairy Products and Grass Fed Beef

  • A 2011 study done in the British Journal of Nutrition found that people who ate grass fed beef had higher blood levels of the heart protective Omega 3’s and lower levels of the pro-inflammatory Omega 6’s than people who had eaten grain fed beef.   They found that people who had eaten grain fed beef had lower levels of Omega 3’s and higher levels of the Omega 6’s.  A healthy diet should consist of a 4:1 ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3.  A higher ratio of Omega 6 over Omega 3 fatty acids is also associated with obesity, inflammatory diseases and diabetes.  The average American diet contains a much higher level of Omega 6’s to Omega 3’s.
  • According to an article in the 2011 Clinical Infectious Diseases scientific journal, it is estimated that 47% of meat and poultry sold in stores across America are infected with drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus due steady use of low doses of antibiotics that created the presence of drug resistant Staph.  So you better make sure you store, handle and cook your meat well!
  • In the May 12, 2010 Journal of Clinical Nutrition, research on 3500 people who consumed dairy products from grass fed cows, revealed they had high levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a heart healthy fat, in their tissues which is also a potential cancer fighter.  Despite the high levels of saturated fat, they concluded that the high levels of CLA may have offset the damage from saturated fats.
  • In a March 10, 2010 a NIH Nutrition Journal article on a comparison in nutrients of grass fed versus grain fed beef, it was determined that grass fed beef contains more CLA, fewer saturated fatty acids, a better Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio, more cancer fighting antioxidants, and less overall fat composition.

What Does It Mean to Be “Organic” in Produce

To be organic means that produce is grown without the use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation.   This means amending the soil with compost, manure and adjusting the pH naturally with lime or wood ashes.  It means optimizing the soil for water retention, nutrients and natural microbes in order to keep the plant healthy.

The Health Benefits of Eating Organic Produce

The Eatwild website, founded by Jo Robinson who wrote the New York Times article, Breeding the Nutrition Out of Foods, lists some benefits of eating organic and local.  The health benefits are listed below:

  • meta-analysis done by the European Food Safety Authority, examining a large number of studies done since 2006, concluded that previous research has not been adequate or clearly conclusive except to support that childhood leukemia and Parkinson’s Disease has been strongly linked to the use of certain pesticides.  However, they did find an increased risk for endocrine disorders, asthma, allergies, diabetes and obesity associated with pesticides.
  • The CDC has a large database, SPIDER, for tracking individual exposure to pesticide for each state and in a 2004 fact sheet states that long term exposure to pesticides has been linked to neurological diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • In a National Institute of Health article, the use of fertilizers puts the water we drink at risk by raising nitrogen levels from runoff.   High levels of nitrogen levels in our drinking water has been linked to cancer, birth defects, diabetes and thyroid conditions.
  • Organic fruits and vegetables have higher levels of nutrients and disease fighting phytochemicals
  • Organically grown produce has more biodiversity so that they are better able to fight off dangerous disease causing microbes that can lead to food poisoning.
  • Certain non-genetically modified fruits and vegetables, like purple Peruvian potatoes, arugula, and wild blueberries are higher in antioxidants

Keep in mind these pesticides and fertilizers are not just coming from our foods but also what we are exposed to when we fertilize our lawns, control our weeds, control our ants, cock roaches and termites and what may be sprayed in the air to control annoying insects.

How to Begin Going Organic

The Center For Science in the Public Interest has a wonderful article on going organic which includes a more complete list of the best produce choices.  In general, you want to buy foods grown and processed only in the US and Canada where there is more pesticide regulation.  Peaches, apples, pears, grapes and berries are fruits that absorb more of the pesticides through their skins and are worth going organic.  Peppers, squash, green beans and greens are the vegetables that can have the greatest impact going organic.  There are food cooperatives that sell only organic produce that you can join to get produce at a more affordable rate.  You can go to the Farm Fresh For ME website to find a cooperative in Maine.

For meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products, gradually go organic where your wallet will allow.  Keep in mind that 4 oz of meat or the size of a deck of cards, is all your body really needs at one time.   Eating more fish and vegetarian meals with plant sourced protein like soy can cut the cost while limiting exposure to hormones and antibiotics provided they are raised in a safe environment. Adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet and whole grains can add volume and fullness factor if you are used to eating larger portions of meat.  The bottom line, learn about your food sources or buy these foods at places that do the work for you like Whole Foods and the food cooperatives.  There are many farmer’s markets that sell organic meats and animal products year round.  Maine Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) has a link to a complete list of farmer’s markets in Maine.

Going organic will be more expensive but remember those chickens that were denied their natural diet of bugs, seeds and grasses?  If their reproductive system and their offspring were seriously affected don’t you wonder what the constant barrage of harmful chemicals from antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, and fertilizers in our foods are doing to your body over time?  Stopping the fast food and highly processed diet and moving towards home cooked meals made with more organic products is going to nourish your body, make it a cancer fighting engine, improve heart health and protect your offspring.  Keep your meat portions smaller, join your local food cooperative to keep you organic prices lower, and choose the organic fruit and veggies that count the most and that will make it more affordable.   Now that is a nice pay back for your health 401k.

 

 

Quench Your Thirst With…Caramel Coloring?

As if we don’t have enough to be concerned about with type of fat, how many fruits and veggies we eat and whether or not there are nitrosamines in our foods.   Now we have to watch out for another food and beverage artificial coloring, caramel coloring, often found in many dark sodas, beer, precooked meats, baked goods, pet foods and sauces like soy sauce. Coke It gives these foods their dark color to make them look more attractive and to return color to foods lost during processing.  For example, some breads claim to be made with “12 whole grains” and may contain primarily enriched white flour with only a small amount of other whole grains.  Food coloring, like caramel coloring, can be added to give the appearance of what consumers might expect a whole grain loaf of bread to look like.  D.D. Williamson, a leading manufacturer of caramel coloring describes the 4 different types of caramel coloring: Caramel I (known as plain or spirit caramel) used in some cereals, nutrition bars and even croutons; Caramel II (caustic sulfite caramel) used in breads and ice cream cones; Caramel III (ammonia or beer caramel) used in beers, and many breads, baked goods and mixes; and Caramel IV (known as sulfite ammonia, soft drink caramel or acid proof caramel) used in many dark sodas like root beer, Coke and Pepsi.  The FDA requires food manufacturers to list these ingredients on their food labels but the beer industry is not required to list them on their labels and many porters, stouts and some other beers contain caramel coloring.  It is the ammonia caramel coloring, category III and IV, found in dark sodas and beer that bares further examination.

Safety of Caramel Coloring

In the process of making category III and IV caramel coloring a contaminant called 4-methylipidazole or 4-MEI develops.  4-MEI can also be formed in other common food processes and is found in tobacco.  For example, it can develop in the roasting of coffee and in the grilling of meats.  In a 2007 study done by the US National Toxicology Program, 4-MEI was linked to cancer in mice and rats.  In 2011, another study done by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found that 4-MEI caused an increased incidence of  adenoma and carcinoma in mice and increased leukemia in female rats.   As a result of the study, the IARC declared it “to be possibly carcinogenic to humans”. The FDA is still reviewing the safety of consumption of 4-MEI and has not set any regulation limiting amounts of 4-MEI in foods.  

California Has Enforced Strict Limits on the Use of 4-MEI

In 2012, the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) did a study on samples from the Washington DC area on several makers of regular and diet Pepsi and Coke.   They found the range of 4-MEI to be between 103 and 153 micrograms (mcg) per can.  In 2012, the state of California in Prop 65 limited the amount of 4-MEI to no more than 29 mcg per serving.  In California manufacturers of products that exceed this amount are required to put a potential link to cancer message on their label.  CSPI examined a can of  Coca Cola taken from a store in California and found  a level of 4 mcg of 4-MEI – well below the 29 mcg level that California required.  Coca Cola stated that they plan to market these sodas with lower levels of 4-MEI to other states sometime in the future, but did not specify when.  Eliminating 4-MEI from foods is virtually impossible but the amounts can be limited by changing manufacturing processes of caramel coloring.  Some companies have already done so.  

California is ahead of the game on regulating the levels of 4-MEI in category III and IV caramel coloring.  Coca Cola listened to California by changing the way it made ammonia caramel coloring that was going in their colas and stocking those shelves with cola and other dark sodas that contain lower levels of 4-MEI.  Coca Cola has not yet made the changes in dark sodas sold in other states because the FDA has not determined and enforced a safe level of 4-MEI.  Further research is needed on determining a safe level.  

So What is a Carbonated Soda Lover To Do?

Meanwhile, why not make the switch to seltzer water?  I switched for the most part (except for an occasional diet Pepsi or diet Coke when out for lunch) to Poland Springs seltzer water (mandarin orange is delicious!) to get my fix of fizzy flavored water.   Better yet, you can make your own fizzy with the several of the soda machines out there like Sodastream and Purefizz.   You can control the sugar level and the type of syrup used for flavoring.

As far as beer goes, many beer manufacturers (Newcastle is one of these – used to be a favorite!) use adjunct grains like corn, not just wheat, creating a lighter colored brew, and use caramel coloring to give their beer the color that consumers expect.  Most craft brews are just made with 4 ingredients:  wheat, hops, water and yeast and do not use artificial coloring or flavoring – Shipyard is one of those!  I would recommend checking to see if your favorite micro-brew beer uses artificial coloring or flavoring and find another one that doesn’t use them.  Either do that or start brewing your own!

We all have to navigate our way to making healthy food choices.  Change doesn’t have to happen overnight but pick one area at a time, look at the ingredients on the labels, find safe and tasty alternatives and make changes that will reduce exposure to possible carcinogens and will nourish your body.  If an ingredient has more than six syllables and has to be made in a lab then shouldn’t you question it’s safety?

In Pickles, Really??

pickles frontYes, both of these jars of pickles have the dye coloring, Yellow 5 in them.  Craved by pregnant women, accompanied with sandwiches and even touted as a healthy snack, many manufacturers of pickles are adding Yellow 5 to their spears, baby dills and sandwich toppers to make you choose them.  The only reason food coloring or dye is added to any food is to enhance visual appeal.  Doesn’t the yellow sharp cheddar cheese look more appealing than the white?  Isn’t cheese suppose to be yellow like in every cartoon?  Think twice before you choose your yellow and red foods unless they are in the produce section.

Safety of Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Red 40 Questioned

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Yellow 5 is in both these jars of pickles!

It turns out that since 1955 United States consumption of food dye has increased five fold with 90% of the food coloring in foods coming from Red 40, and Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.  In 2010, Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reviewed studies done on the safety of the nine FDA approved food dyes.   CSPI’s mission is to inform the public of unsafe products, unsafe practices and laws that need to be changed.  CSPI’s review revealed that the research done on the safety of food dyes was not done by independent researchers, nor were adequate mice samples used and testing was done only over two years – not sufficient time to test for the development of cancer.  Furthermore, all of the studies were done on individual dyes, therefore not taking into consideration the synergistic effect of multiple dyes as when people may eat a variety of foods with different dyes during a meal.  So the real safety of food dyes has not been sufficiently proven.  CSPI has petitioned the FDA to ban all food dyes due to their possible carcinogenic effects, cause of hypersensitivities and behavior problems, and insufficient testing.  The British government has banned the use of artificial food coloring and the European Union requires all food labels that contain dyes to label that they may cause hyperactivity in children.  In England, McDonald’s strawberry milkshake is made with real strawberries but here in the US, Red 40 is used.  In an article provided by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, Bernard Weiss, a professor at University of Rochester, argues that there has been a link between artificial dyes and behavior problems in children, and goes on to say that the FDA’s “inaction amounts to approval of ongoing experiment with children”.

Foods That Contain Red 40, Yellow 5 and 6

Red 40 is contained in soda, candy, gelatin desserts, pastries, pet food, and even sausage!  Yellow 5 and 6 is found in candy, gelatin desserts, pet food, beverages, and baked goods.  Most likely if a boxed cake mix is yellow or pink, then it contains artificial food coloring.  To make that pet food look meatier, it’s got artificial dyes.  Do you really want Rover to be more hyper than he already is?  Could these dyes have the same effect on our four legged friends? To make that jello jiggle in reds, oranges or yellows, it contains artificial food dyes.  That red M&M your kids may fight over not only may have an accumulative cancer risk, but may truly be causing hyperactivity in your kids.  Basically, if it’s from one of those large food manufacturers, and it’s either made for you or saving you some steps, it contains artificial ingredients, including dyes that not only increase the chance of cancer, but they make your kids bounce off the walls.

Alternatives to Artificial Food Coloring

There are safe alternatives to making foods more appealing through color.  Beet extracts and other natural colorants can be added to your dogs pet food or to the jello.  Paprika or beta-carotene can be added for yellow.  WILD Flavors, Inc has a thorough list of all natural coloring substitutes that are an alternative to using artificial dyes.  Manufacturers should be required to use these alternatives and if the FDA won’t ban them, then as a consumer, demand that they use them by either writing to your favorite manufacturers or stop buying them and go back to basics.  If you want candy, eat dark chocolate.  If you want cereal, eat unflavored oatmeal and flavor it with a teaspoon of honey, raisins and some cinnamon.  If you want some cake then make one from scratch – they freeze well too!  If you want a popsicle then buy ones made from 100% juice or make your own with blenderized frozen fruit and vanilla Greek yogurt and get some popsicle molds.  If you want a pickle, then find a manufacturer like Rick’s Picks found online or sold at Whole Foods and many other specialty stores that even have a low sodium all natural pickle or look for pickles without yellow 5 listed in the ingredients.

Get Back To Basics

Doesn’t it just make sense to get back to simple ingredients?  If a label has more than 5 ingredients and it contains words that you cannot pronounce, then doesn’t it seem sensible to just not buy it?  Think back to your great grandparents, before there were more than 3 aisles in the grocery store and the only jar of pickles found were those canned in the fall.  Back then, they didn’t even have refrigeration.  At least now you can make foods and freeze in bulk to enjoy over many weeks or you can be a discerning consumer.   You should always be suspicious of the ingredients sneaking into your foods under the guise of enhancing nutritional experience, but really just making the foods more attractive and extending their shelf life.  Start looking at the labels in your closet to see what may be lurking on them.   Not only may you find making different food choices to help your children and household be calmer, but you may keep cancer at bay down the road.

 

Does Bacon Beckon?

bacon wrapped chickenBacon is the meat lover’s candy.  Bacon is getting a lot of attention with bacon festivals, Oscar Mayer’s Say It With Bacon commercial and a huge growth in foreign markets, particularly in China.  Enjoy it for breakfast, lunch or dinner, nestled with eggs, topped on a burger, sprinkled on a salad or draped over chicken, it always leaves you wanting more.  But unlike most things in small packages, it delivers to the average American who consumes 18 pounds a year, an unhealthy dose of saturated fat and sodium.  There is controversy over whether or not to buy nitrate/nitrite free bacon.  But there is much more to consider when indulging in your favorite slice of bacon.

Saturated Fat in Bacon

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 7% of your total calorie intake.  For a 2000 calorie a day diet that means no more than 140 calories should come from saturated fat.  There are 9 calories per gram in fat.  Divide 140 by 9 and you get a recommended daily limit of about 16 grams of saturated fat if you want to be kind to your heart and arteries, and you want to be around to see your grandchildren start cooking bacon.  bacon dry rubbedYou’ll notice that the saturated fats on the labels below are different in each package.  When you read the label, you want to look at the serving size, and in this case I would look at the weight in grams as well, that are to the right of the serving size on the nutrition label.  The label on the left shows 18 grams and the one on the right has 20 grams. Both labels refer to bacon that is already cooked.  Under the total fat grams on the right you’ll see the listing for saturated fat for that one slice of bacon.   The left label has 2 grams, the right contains 2.5 grams.  bacon label

The rest of the fat is coming mostly from monounsaturated fats – the good fats.  Keep in mind that the more the bacon is cooked and drained of the dripping fat, the lower the grams of saturated fat. Be mindful that most likely 2 slices of bacon will contain about 5 grams of saturated fat or about 1/3 of your daily allotment of saturated fat.

Sodium in Bacon

The American Heart Association also recommends limiting daily sodium consumption to no more than 1500 mg.  Sodium makes our bodies hold onto fluid.  The extra fluid increases the blood volume and work load that our heart has to pump, leading to high blood pressure over time.  Just eating 4 and a half slices of thick sliced bacon gets you to your daily recommended amount (the bacon on the right has 350 mg of bacon in each slice).  That does not even include the salt in the butter, toast and the salt on those eggs, nor the salt in your other meals.

Not All Nitrates Are Bad

But the real confusion is over sodium nitrates and nitrites.  Nitrates are a form of nitrogen which is ubiquitous – 78% of the air we breathe contains nitrogen.  Nitrogen is the most important nutrient for good crop growth.   Root vegetables and green leafy vegetables like spinach and carrots are naturally high in sodium nitrate which is converted to sodium nitrite and then to the very heart beneficial nitric oxide (NO) in our GI tract with the help of bacteria in our saliva.   Research supports that consumption of dietary nitrites is what protects our arteries, lowers blood pressure, keeps our platelets from clumping and boosts our immune system.   Green leafy vegetables and root vegetables are naturally high in antioxidants too which may prevent the transformation of nitrites into the carcinogenic nitrosamines (see below).

Adding Sodium Nitrate to Foods

Sodium nitrate is a type of salt that is converted to sodium nitrite in the curing process.  Sodium nitrate is used to maintain bacon’s pink color and to prevent the growth of botulism and listeria monocytogenes, an environmental bacteria that can cause illness in some people.   Salt and sodium nitrite work by osmosis, killing the bacteria through dehydration by drawing the fluid out of the cells.  There has not been an outbreak of botulism since 1925 when sodium nitrite was approved for curing meat.  The nitrite controversy is over the possibility of sodium nitrite’s link to gastrointestinal cancer.   Sodium nitrites when combined with “amines” that come from certain proteins convert to the carcinogenic nitrosamines.  Nitrosamines are more likely to develop in an acidic environment like the stomach or when cooked at high temperature such as frying, broiling and grilling.  In one study done by the Cancer Research Center in Hawaii and the University of Southern California a link was found between eating processed meats and pancreatic cancer.  The study which included over 190,000 individuals followed over 7 years indicated a 50-70% greater risk for developing pancreatic cancer in those who consumed the greatest amount of processed and red meat.   Processed meats include bacon, ham, pastrami, salami, hot dogs, sausages and some red meats.   However, the study concluded that further research is needed to better understand meat preparation methods and the use of other cancer causing compounds in meat processing.  Researchers at the USDA Agricultural Research Service found that adding Vitamin C and Vitamin E in the form of ascorbic acid and alpha-tocopheral to the curing process greatly reduced the formation of nitrosamines, so many commercial brands of bacon do this.   Also be aware that many bacon labels claim to be nitrate and nitrite free but use celery juice or powder for curing, both of which contain nitrites and can have twice the amount of nitrites than in bacon cured using sodium nitrite and still be able to claim they are nitrate free.  You can see the celery powder in the list of ingredients in the nutrition facts label on the left.

Navigating Through the Bacon Dilemma

So what is a bacon lover to do?  First of all, the World Cancer Research Fund recommends eating no more than 16 ounces of red or processed meat a week.  Three ounces is about the size of a deck of cards.  Secondly, some research indicates that nitrosamine levels are affected by what the pig eats.  Pigs fed with corn oil supplements had the highest level of N-nitrosopyrrolidine, a type of nitrosamine.  There has also been research that supports the carcinogenic effects of liquid smoke and smoked meats.   Liquid smoke is often times added to pork when it is pumped and plumped in the curing process.   Lastly, some evidence suggests that it is the fat in bacon the harbors more of the carcinogenic nitrosamines.  At this point I will start buying bacon mainly from a pastured grass fed farm. There is a link here to EatWild – Maine that gives you the complete list of grass fed farms in Maine.  I will really scour the packages of bacon to get the leaner ones and trim off some of the easily removable fat on the bacon.  I also will not be so worried about the use of nitrates in preservation but will be mindful of my portions and limiting bacon to my usual Sunday morning breakfast of 3 pieces with my eggs.  I will limit my ham consumption to holidays and eat sausage much more rarely.  I will also only buy sausage from pastured pigs.   I will cook my bacon in a pan at much lower heat, and encourage my husband the grill man to cook our meat and poultry with much more tender loving care, more time and at a lower heat.  And, as always, I will continue to eat my arugula, spinach, carrots and beat greens most days of the week!

Life is always a balance of mixing the good and the bad.  You have to look at the whole picture including hereditary risk factors, weight, exercise, financial ability, stress management and of course food choices like bacon.  Navigate through the bacon paradigm in a way that will fit your lifestyle but look at the whole picture and balance the areas you don’t want to change that might not be as healthy with those you are willing to change that might offset some of the unhealthy choices.  So if you’re going to have that extra bit of bacon, put some spinach in your omelet, and go for a walk afterwards!