Sodium nitrite (sodium salt of nitric acid)

  • Our verdict: 4 - we recommend avoiding
  • Origin: It is produced synthetically and does not come from natural sources.

Sodium nitrite (E250) is a chemical compound commonly used as a food preservative, particularly in the meat industry. It has the chemical formula NaNO2 and appears as a white to slightly yellowish crystalline powder. Sodium nitrite is known for its ability to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, especially Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism. It is also used to enhance the colour and flavour of cured meats, giving them their characteristic pink hue.

Origin

Sodium nitrite can be of both natural and artificial origins. Naturally, it can be found in certain vegetables and is produced in the body during the digestion of certain foods. Industrially, sodium nitrite is synthesized through the neutralization of nitrous acid with sodium hydroxide, or by reducing sodium nitrate.

Characteristics

Sodium nitrite is utilized in the food industry for several key reasons:

  • Antibacterial Properties: Inhibits the growth of Clostridium botulinum.
  • Colour Fixative: Maintains the appealing pink color in cured meats.
  • Flavour Enhancer: Contributes to the distinctive taste of cured meats.
  • Antioxidant: Helps prevent lipid oxidation, extending the shelf life of food products.

Uses in Ultra‑Processed Foods

In ultra‑processed foods, sodium nitrite plays several crucial roles:

  • Preservation: Sodium nitrite is extensively used in processed meats such as bacon, ham, sausages, and hot dogs to prevent spoilage and the growth of harmful bacteria, ensuring food safety.
  • Colour Retention: It helps maintain the attractive red or pink color of processed meats, which might otherwise turn gray or brown due to oxidation. This visual appeal is important for consumer acceptance.
  • Flavour Development: The compound reacts with the proteins in meat to develop and preserve the characteristic flavours of cured and smoked meats. This is a crucial aspect for taste and marketability.
  • Shelf Life Extension: By acting as an antioxidant, sodium nitrite prevents the rancidity of fats, thus prolonging the shelf life of meat products. This makes the products more convenient for consumers and retailers.
  • Texture Improvement: Sodium nitrite can help improve the texture of meat products, making them more palatable and desirable to consumers.

Health Considerations

While sodium nitrite is effective in preserving food and ensuring safety, there are health considerations and potential risks associated with its consumption:

  • Carcinogenic: Under certain conditions, such as high temperatures during cooking, sodium nitrite can react with amines in foods to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic and have been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
  • Methemoglobinemia: High levels of nitrites can lead to methemoglobinemia, a condition where hemoglobin is unable to carry oxygen effectively, which can be particularly dangerous for infants.
  • Hypertension and Cardiovascular Issues: Some studies suggest that excessive consumption of sodium nitrite may be associated with increased risks of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases due to its potential effects on blood pressure and vascular function.
  • Regulatory Limits: Due to these potential risks, the use of sodium nitrite in food products is strictly regulated, with limits set on the allowable concentrations in various foods to minimize health hazards.

References

  1. Sindelar, J. J., & Milkowski, A. L. (2012). Human safety controversies surrounding nitrate and nitrite in the diet. Nitric Oxide, 26(4), 108‑120.
  2. Cassens, R. G. (1997). Residual nitrite in cured meat. Food Technology (USA).
  3. Honikel, K. O. (2008). The use and control of nitrate and nitrite for the processing of meat products. Meat Science, 78(1‑2), 68‑76.
  4. Pegg, R. B., & Shahidi, F. (2000). Nitrite Curing of Meat: The N‑Nitrosamine Problem and Nitrite Alternatives. Trumbull, CT: Food & Nutrition Press.
  5. EFSA Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (ANS). (2010). Scientific Opinion on the re‑evaluation of sodium nitrite (E 250) as a food additive. EFSA Journal, 8(5), 1680.
  6. Nur‑Syazni, M. H., & Shahrul, S. H. (2022). Health Risk Assessment of Sodium Nitrite and Nitrate in Processed Meat Products. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(22), 14844. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph192214844