Nitrite In The Hot Dogs Of My Youth

Rewritten: November 2014 I had filtered the tone and content of the original piece written in 2011 for fear that it would be shot down on a conservative website that once hosted my blogs. But I’ve decided to reveal the rest of the story.

nitritesI hope that Health and Welfare Canada guidelines for certain additives are a bit more stringent than they have to be to help compensate for possible loose play on the part of industries. When I was a student and shortly after I graduated, I analyzed fat content, dextrose and nitrite levels in hot dogs and other meat products for a well-known company. I’m not naming the company because for all I know they may have mended their ways. Also, I never gathered evidence that the whole industry was or is guilty of the things that I witnessed.

Nitrite (NO2) is added in small quantities to preserve and to color many cold cuts and hot dogs. At the time, acceptable limits for NO2 ranged for 100 to 150 ppm (mg of nitrite per kg of meat), depending on the product. But levels frequently surpassed the guidelines by 25 to 50%. At first I questioned my own analyses, but they were confirmed by my supervisor. The head of the lab said he would look into it at the production end, but weeks later the problem persisted. In general we were instructed not to carry out the analyses in duplicate, unless an anomalous result surfaced.

We had learned in the statistical math section of analytical chemistry that tests of the sort should be carried out in triplicate. One day an inspector from Health and Welfare Canada came into the lab, and I told him about the problem. He told me he was just a summer replacement with only a background in CEGEP ( a junior college) health sciences, and so that he could not really understand what I was saying. Later that summer, I was switched to the night shift, and I was alone in the lab. Digging into records from the previous two years, I found that other technicians had also been routinely finding high levels of nitrite (exceeding guidelines) in two specific products.

Nitrite, I realize, is an important preservative, and although it has been associated with cancer in rats, the “traditional” consensus is that the possibility of a similar occurrence in humans is only slightly elevated because of the concurrent addition of erythorbate and/or ascorbic acid. This prevents the formation of nitrosamines in the stomach’s acidic environment, the actual compounds with carcinogenic connections in animals. But I also saw the pale color of the hot dog mixture prior to nitrite addition, and it would not have been so pale if the ingredients weren’t such a mishmash of intestines and other meat “scraps”.

hotdogs_insideMost of the public was unaware that what they were really tasting in hot dogs were the strong spices, salt and sugars. Our analyses revealed that the fraction of dextrose in hot dogs ( close to 10%)  was routinely greater than that of protein, placing the product somewhere on the spectrum between meat and candy. (Currently, according to USDA analyses, things are better from that perspective. The ratio of protein to sugar in a 100 gram sample ranges from 6 to 10 grams of protein to 1 gram of sugar. Yet fresh meat or fish has triple the amount of protein.) Their ham was also adulterated with water, which then facilitated the growth of bacteria, thus increasing the need for nitrite additives. Even today processed ham is still diluted, slicing the protein level to half of what it should be.

When working there, I was strongly tempted to become a whistle-blower and to go public with what I thought were outrageous company practices from both a health and scientific standpoint. But relatives and friends were not supportive, and I was too wimpy to act alone. Aside from writing this piece, I have told my story to hundreds of students in my career, and since those analyses, I don’t think I’ve eaten more than a couple of meat-hot dogs in the last three decades.

A Journal of the National Cancer Institute study in 2005 found a link between processed meats and pancreatic cancer, but in fairness,the study did not prove that the risk was to the presence of nitrites. In recent years, Maple Leaf has used celery extract, which is rich in nitrites as a way of deceiving consumers into thinking they are buying a healthy alternative.

Defenders of nitrite in processed meats like to point out that lettuce and spinach can also have elevated levels of nitrate (which can be converted in to nitrite). There are two problems with their argument:

(1) Not all samples have concentrations comparable to nitrite levels. If the lettuce and spinach is not grown with fresh manure or with synthetic fertilizer, the nitrate levels plummet.

(2) The argument is akin to the nuclear industry’s old trick of attempting to abate fears about radiation wastes by pointing out that there are already natural radioactive isotopes in the earth’s crust and in our bodies. In both cases, what they are hiding is that by artificially increasing the background concentrations they are increasing the risk of complications.

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