I just read an article talking about the need for schools to stop serving children processed meats such as hot dogs, ham and pepperoni. It stated that some studies have linked nitrites (sometimes used in curing meats) to cancer. My question is; why aren't they telling us to stay away from spinach or pomegranates as they naturally contain nitrites?

Nitrosamines such as nitrates and nitrites are compounds that contain a nitrogen atom joined to oxygen atoms; nitrite contains two oxygen atoms and nitrate contains three. Many foods are preserved by nitrites, and both nitrates and nitrites are used extensively to improve the color of various foods and to extend the shelf life of processed meats. Intake of nitrosamines has been shown to be potent animal carcinogens and is likely to be cancer causing in humans as well. The American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research both agree that intake of processed meats should be limited or avoided. Other scientists feel that, while there are several studies that show a link between processed meats and cancer, there are also studies that do not show a link. The debate is ongoing.

Nitrates can also be found in foods other than meats such as spinach, broccoli, celery and beets. Researchers have long debated about whether the amount of nitrates in vegetables is even significant enough to impact health. In addition, scientists note that vegetables also contain ascorbic acid, which may act as an inhibitor of nitrosamine formation, making vegetables “safe” from a cancer perspective.

As previously mentioned, there is much debate about the consumption of processed meats and overall impact on health. Further research is needed to conclude overall safety. However, I recommend limiting consumption of processed meats, as they generally contain increased amounts of fat and sodium. Also, research tells us that a diet that is high in processed foods tends to be low in overall fruits and vegetables, which are key in helping reduce our risk of cancer.

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