To replace the pure chemical nitrites of old, many organic meat producers have been substituting celery juice or a powdered extract. Celery is one of many leafy green vegetables with naturally occurring nitrates–about 1,103 parts per million in the fresh plant–so these labelling claims (while technically correct) can seem misleading. It’s just another instance of the organic food industry accidentally replicating what it set out to oppose.
Earlier this year, Cook’s Illustrated tested different types of bacon and found that two brands of “nitrate-free” bacon had significantly more nitrites than their conventional counterpart. “If you want to avoid these compounds,” they wrote, “you’ll have to avoid bacon–and any other processed meats containing celery juice–altogether.”
Bacon is pork of course, but, to comply with food regulations, both are treated with nitrites (and nitrates) to preserve the meat and prevent bacteria from forming. These chemicals break the Paleo ethos, not the meat itself. It is illegal in many countries to sell ‘raw’ meat (or milk for that matter), hence the elimination from a paleo diet on practicality grounds.
Food preservation initially relied on salt, fermentation, drying and canning. Before the age of refrigeration, these methods were used to keep foods from spoiling. Research about nitrates began in the 1920s, where it was found to effectively kill many strains of bacteria that other preservation methods missed.
Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are food additives commonly used in cured meat. Its main function is to inhibit clostridium botulinum bacteria from producing the toxin that causes botulism. Botulism is a life-threatening illness that results in paralysis and eventually death. Nitrate combined with salt is extremely effective at inhibiting the growth of clostridium botulinum. Sodium nitrate also contributes to the flavour and pink colour of cured meats.