That’s according to Jeff Sindelar, associate professor and extension meat specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is contributing to a new guide designed to overcome dietary misunderstandings about meat.
He explained that the human body excretes the nitrates it does not need, converting the rest in the mouth into nitrite, which is swallowed, turned into nitric oxide in the gut and stored. It can then be used as nitric oxide or as nitrite.
“We now know that the human body generates far more nitrite as a product of nitric oxide generation than we do by eating processed meat,” Sindelar told GlobalMeatNews at the recent International Production & Processing Expo at Atlanta in the US.
Controlling blood pressure
“On average, we consume less than 10 parts per million of nitrite, depending on our diet while the body generates 70-80 parts per million of nitric oxide/nitrite/nitrate. These compounds are important for controlling blood pressure, wound healing and memory loss and are loosely classed as vitamins.”
Nitrate is naturally present in leafy vegetables and is rarely used as a meat preservative, except in a few types of dried sausages and dried cured hams, he said. “The human body receives a higher consumption of nitrates through vegetables – about 93% – than through other sources.”
By contrast, nitrite is widely used as a preservative for meat. “I have done a lot of meat quality and safety research on nitrite alone and, in combination with other ingredients, it’s absolutely clear that more is better up to maximum regulatory limits.”
Asked how the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) could portray nitrates in processed meat as harmful and a contributory factor to cancer, Sindelar said: “Some groups have had directives from research bodies to improve human health. They look at cohort studies and meta-analysis studies and have not always understood the information they are analysing.
‘Not always accurate’
“They are using relative risk ratios to predict the risk of cancer, heart disease, or other human health problems and there have been conclusions drawn that have not always been accurately portrayed, or accurate, period.
“Nitrate has been reported in numerous studies to be linked to a number of causes for diseases such as cancer. Unfortunately, a small number of scientific individuals who support no fully scientifically sound conclusions have had the ability to have a converting effect on the WHO.”
Possible reasons for this included flaws of design or misunderstandings about cured meats and their true nitrate/nitrite contribution to the diet he said. “Too often the people being listened to regarding factual understanding of the literature regarding nitrate/nitrite human health safety are doctors, not food scientists.”
Sindelar said he was working with the American Meat Science Association (AMSA) to produce a document that would provide a clear and cohesive lexicon of meat-related terms, tackling misunderstandings about ingredients and components, including curing, nitrate, nitrite, and other often confusing terms.
“We are not always clear in the terms we use. For example, referring to pork as ‘the other white meat’ has been a plague to the industry. As a committee, we’ve spent a lot of time on better clarifying what the definition of white meat and poultry is, for example.”
Coverage of the project would appear in AMSA’s Journal of Meat & Muscle Biology later this year, he said. “It has the intent of getting into the hands of individuals who sit on IARC, WHO, and other human health policy-impacting committees.”
The guide is also designed to define terminology for a variety of other important areas such as laboratory-grown meat in relation to other meats.
“Our overarching concern is that there are no rules or regulations for what we would classify as ‘scarers’ – what’s the next concern?” The aim is to provide a balanced perspective that steers away from media-hyped hysterical overreaction. “Instead of trying to respond, we are trying to be more proactive to allow science-based information to be injected into concerns before they become unwarranted issues.”