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Sodium Nitrite Q&A

What is sodium nitrite?

Sodium nitrite is a salt and an anti-oxidant that is used to cure meats like ham, bacon and hot dogs. Sodium nitrite serves a vital public health function: it blocks the growth of botulism-causing bacteria and prevents spoilage. Sodium nitrite also gives cured meats their characteristic color and flavor. Also, USDA-sponsored research indicates that sodium nitrite can help prevent the growth of Listeria monocytogenes, an environmental bacterium that can cause illness in some at-risk populations.

Are cured meats the major source of sodium nitrite?

The amount of nitrate in some vegetables can be very high.  Spinach, for example, may contain 500 to 1900 parts per million of sodium nitrate. Less than five percent of daily sodium nitrite intake comes from cured meats. Nearly 93 percent of sodium nitrite comes from leafy vegetables & tubers and our own saliva. Vegetables contain sodium nitrate, which is converted to sodium nitrite when it comes into contact with saliva in the mouth.

Can cured meats be produced without sodium nitrite?

Cured meats by their definition must include sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite is the ingredient that gives a product like ham its color and taste. Without sodium nitrite, these products’ shelf life would be shortened substantially.

Some uncured products available today use vegetable-based ingredients like celery juice, which may contain nitrate naturally, to deliver a color and flavor similar to traditionally cured meats. When the sodium nitrate in celery, or other sodium nitrate-containing vegetables, is exposed to certain types of bacteria in the product, the nitrate is converted to sodium nitrite, which results in product characteristics similar to traditionally cured meat products. The amount of sodium nitrite consumed from these types of products versus traditionally cured meat products is virtually the same.

Years ago, I heard some people say that sodium nitrite causes cancer. Is sodium nitrite safe?

Numerous scientific panels have evaluated sodium nitrite safety and the conclusions have essentially been the same: sodium nitrite is not only safe, it’s an essential public health tool because it has a proven track record of preventing botulism. The National Toxicology Program, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, conducted a multi-year study to evaluate sodium nitrite’s safety. The study found that sodium nitrite was safe at the levels used.

Is it true that sodium nitrite may have health benefits?

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health over the last several years have announced a number of studies that document the health benefits of sodium nitrite. These scientists have concluded that sodium nitrite is a potential new treatment for organ transplantation, heart attacks, sickle cell disease, and leg vascular problems.

For more information on Sodium Nitrite, please see the Sodium Nitrite Fact Sheet.


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