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Why do you have to use nitrates?

Sodium nitrate is a type of salt that happens to be a particularly effective food preservative. A naturally occurring mineral, sodium nitrate is present in all kinds of vegetables (root vegetables like carrots as well as leafy greens like celery and spinach) along with all sorts of fruits and grains. Basically, anything that grows from the ground draws sodium nitrate out of the soil. The word nitrate refers to a compound made of nitrogen, which is the single biggest component of our atmosphere. Every time you take a breath, you’re breathing 78 percent nitrogen. The soil itself is loaded with the stuff. One of the things that happen when sodium nitrate is used as a curing agent is that the sodium nitrate is converted to sodium nitrite. It’s sodium nitrite that actually possesses the antimicrobial properties that make it a good preservative. Interestingly, the sodium nitrate that we consume through fruits, vegetables and grains is also converted to sodium nitrite by our digestive process. In other words, when we eat fruits, vegetables or grains, our bodies produce sodium nitrite. So what about all those supposedly “nitrate-free” hot dogs, bacon and other so-called ‘uncured’ products? Since completely uncured hot dogs are unpalatable to consumers, it’s rare indeed to find a product that is totally nitrate-free. Instead, manufacturers make claims like “no nitrates added. The reality is that companies that make nitrate-free hot dogs have to use something to substitute for sodium nitrate. Celery juice is a popular choice. And guess what celery juice contains lots of? Sodium nitrate. And guess what that sodium nitrate turns into when you eat it? Sodium nitrite! As we said earlier, celery is a natural source of sodium nitrate. (Notice that no one is currently claiming that celery causes cancer or that people should reduce their intake of celery.) But by adding celery juice to their hot dogs, manufacturers can make products loaded with sodium nitrate while legally being able to claim “no added nitrates.” Because all the nitrates are in the celery juice. As a matter of fact, these supposedly “natural” or “organic” products sometimes contain twice as much sodium nitrate, even up to a whopping ten times as much sodium nitrate, as conventional products.

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