The Myth of Nitrite-Free Cured Meats

I flipped through Trader Joe’s flier last week – I love good long-form ad copy. One of their products was labeled as a nitrite-free pastrami. This raised my eyebrow because pastrami, a cured deli meat of Jewish culinary extraction, is usually cured with something called sodium nitrite. In this post, I’ll dig into the issue of sodium nitrite, why some people avoid it, and why these nitrite-free offerings aren’t the solution.

Sodium Nitrite (NaNO2) is a salt molecule with a oxygen atoms attached to it. A tiny amount of it wards of botulism, a tremendously deadly food toxin that will only grow in environments without oxygen (hence, canned goods are the most common culprit). A little bit of oxygen keeps the botulism away. In addition, it lends the meat a cured flavor and keeps the meat pink even while cooked. You can see this most strikingly on an Easter ham.

While the research suggests that it’s fine in small quantities, some people avoid sodium nitrite because it may form carcinogenic compounds. I use it in the kitchen with cured goods but I use it sparingly. I am not here to debate using it or not; nobody is going to change each other’s minds about this.

The problem is, as usual, in the fine print for nitrite-free products. This Trader Joe’s pastrami was described as being free of nitrites except naturally occurring amounts in celery extract and sea salt. Well, why on earth would you use celery in a pastrami recipe? Because celery contains sodium nitrite! The celery is reduced down into an extract and mixed with sea salt that also contains an abnormally high amount of NaNO2. So the makers of these products, like the normally-responsible Niman Ranch, can say “no added nitrites” when they blast the thing with just as much curing salt. If it’s in celery powder, though, they fool you into thinking it’s not cured.

The nicotine in e-vape sticks is the same as in tobacco leaves. The morphine in poppy latex is the same in opium. And the sodium nitrite in celery is the exact same molecule as what comes in commercial pink curing salt. Let’s not fool ourselves.

If you’re avoiding nitrites, avoid the products juiced with these compounds. If you’re still going to eat nitrates, I’d still exercise caution with natural extracts of it. When we’re using a lab chemical like sodium nitrite, we can measure out exactly now much is going into food. If we’re using a plant-derived product or something mined, we don’t know the purity unless we test the sample in a lab. That means you could be getting far more sodium nitrite in your “uncured” food, and I don’t like unpredictable things like that.

It’s a bummer to run into brands that we trust using cleverness to trick us as consumers.