July 7, 1995


As the necessity for preservation has diminished, largely owing to modern refrigeration methods, the "cosmetic" use of nitrite has assumed greater importance in the meat industry and involves a $12.5 billion cured meat market.

Samuel S. Epstein, 1979

When I see and hear Oscar Meyer's pitching their bologna advertising at kids, I shudder. I have nothing against meat eating, nor eating preserved meats. I do object strenuously to pushing any product at children that contains a known carcinogen (cancer causer).

I eat foods that contain carcinogens, and I have given them to my children; so why do I object? Knowing children, I know that kids go on food binges and that a child may want bologna sandwiches daily, just like some kids eat only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Under those circumstances, the carcinogens in the food may ultimately cause cancer; not in the child perhaps, but when he becomes an adult.

A carcinogen can be expected to have a much greater effect on a child. No, bologna is probably not going to cause cancer in your kid, but it may make it more likely for him when he gets a lot older.

What is there in bologna, or bacon or a variety of lunch meats, that can be dangerous? If you look at the list of ingredients, you will see sodium nitrite. This chemical, when combined with amino acids, which are the major ingredients of all meat, form a group of compounds called nitrosamines. They are carcinogenic in experimental animals. No one has done the experiment in man, but it's a good bet that what causes cancer in a mouse will do so in people. There are also epidemiological studies that link nitrosamines to human cancer.

With all chemical carcinogens, risk is proportional to intake. One pack of cigarettes is not going to give you lung cancer. Neither will a modest amount of bologna, bacon, or broiled steak or hamburger. Large amounts are dangerous, but the effect will probably not be felt until much later in life.

All efforts to ban nitrites in food have failed, thanks to the political clout of preserved meat producers. They claim that leaving the nitrites out make it more likely that the organism that causes botulism will grow and make their toxin. Botulism, a fatal food poisoning, is rare in these days of refrigeration, and pressure canning. It is caused by a toxin made by the organism Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium forms spores which are very resistant to heat; although they cannot resist pressure cooker temperatures. This is why home canning is not recommended, with certain foods, unless it is done with a pressure cooker. The saving grace is that, even if the organism grows and produces its toxin, the toxin is destroyed by boiling for 10 minutes. Despite its rarity, botulism is deadly, so boiling canned beans and such is a good idea before eating them. Botulism can also be prevented by refrigeration or, better still, freezing.

If you look at the label on most canned meat, you will also find sodium nitrite listed on the label. There can be no possible reason, other than appearance, to justify its presence in canned food that has been sterilized at high temperature. But that doesn't stop the meat packers. They have been using the stuff since recorded time, and they aren't going to change just because some crank scientists have found that it causes cancer. The meat packers use nitrates less to prevent botulism, than to give meat a red color. Meats preserved without nitrates look grey to brown or black.

So, for your kid's health in the future, avoid bologna and most preserved meats. Strict avoidance is unnecessary, but don't use them as staples. If you have any question about it, look at the label. The word nitrite should be enough to cause you buy something else.

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