Almost ten years ago we started looking for a place to process the hogs we had raised on our own farm. Jessica was set on finding a place that did not use nitrites and nitrates to cure and preserved food. We were unable to find a processor who did as such (and even worse, were often asked “what are nitrites and nitrates”?). Not only did people not offer the choice to use other forms of nitrites and nitrates, but they often did not know what they were!
Nitrites and Nitrates are two common polyatomic ions (compounds formed from multiple atoms that have an electrical charge). Because they have a charge, they form ionic bonds with particles that neutralize that charge (the same way the negative side of a magnet will stick to the positive side of a magnet). They are most often found in processed foods bonding to sodium and potassium (as sodium nitrate and potassium nitrite). Because their bonds are based on relatively weak electrical bonds, when placed in solution they break apart to form negatively charged nitrite and nitrate ions and positively charged potassium and sodium ions.
Once singled out in solution from their “partner” ions, nitrites and nitrates can both easily be heated and converted to large nitrosamine molecules. This can occur when heating or cooking the product. A health concern comes into play when you realize that most nitrosamines are known carcinogens(cancer causing particles). Nitrites and nitrates themselves are not harmful (in fact, they may be beneficial) but when heat is introduced and they become nitrosamines they can cause great potential harm.
Rather than using straight sodium nitrate and potassium nitrite to cure our meat, we use naturally occurring celery juice powder. Celery juice powder (actually, celery in general, as well as many other vegetables including spinach, arugula, beets and lettuce) is very high in nitrites and nitrates. What makes it better for you than straight sodium nitrate and potassium nitrite? As I said, the danger in nitrites and nitrates is that when they are heated, they can convert to nitrosamines. In a vegetable, there are several other particles that can bond to the nitrates and nitrites to prevent them from forming nitrosamines. This effectively neutralizes the potential harm of these common polyatomic ions.
Food is exceedingly complicated, and nitrites and nitrates are one of many examples that show the complexity of what you eat. When used in the conventional method of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrite, the nitrates and nitrites will easily separate in solution and be converted to carcinogenic nitrosamines in the presence of heat. When used in vegetables they react with the vast system of other compounds present to neutralize the harmful effect, and even be beneficial! Food is complex, and the best way to ensure that you get all the nutrients you need in just the right combinations is to get your food in the simplest form possible. In this case, curing our product with naturally occurring celery juice powder.