Meat Matters: The Truth Behind Curing Meats

( National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff )

By Janeal Yancey

In the pork business, we love our cured meats – bacon, ham, hotdogs, sausages. In the U.S., more than 60% of the pork carcass is processed, and a large portion of those cuts are cured. These products are a staple of the American diet, but unfortunately, the process of curing and some of the ingredients used have gotten a bad reputation as unhealthy or even carcinogenic. 

Why do we cure pork?

Curing is one of the oldest methods of preserving meats. Many historians think the process was accidently discovered when salt, contaminated with nitrates, was rubbed on meats, creating a new flavor and eating experience. 

In the modern pork industry, curing ingredients, such as sodium nitrite, are added to ham, bacon or sausage for four main reasons:

1.    Nitrites produce a pink color that consumers expect, and the color is stable in the package for a long shelf life. Longer shelf life means less waste.
2.    Cured pork products have a distinct, savory flavor. Think about how a ham tastes different than a pork roast.
3.    Nitrites and salt work together to keep the pork from going rancid and protect the flavor.
4.    Nitrites prevent the growth of pathogens, especially Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism. They also prevent spoilage bacteria from growing in cured meats. 

Without getting too deep into the chemistry, nitrates and nitrites are very similar molecules. Nitrate has one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms, whereas nitrite has one nitrogen and two oxygen atoms. In the body and in meats, nitrate is converted to nitrite. These compounds are typically combined with a sodium or potassium when added to a meat product, and that’s how they will appear on the ingredient statement. In the meat, the nitrite is further converted to nitric oxide and reacts with the color pigments and heat to change the color to pink.

How do we get cured meats without nitrites?

As concerns in the public have grown around nitrites, many companies have started producing uncured versions of their products without added nitrites. Today, it’s hard to find a package of hotdogs that is not labeled ‘uncured’ or ‘no added nitrites or nitrates.’ Celery powder is a natural source of nitrate and is used as an ingredient to cure meats, so they still look and taste like consumers expect. 

There are strict rules about what must go on the label of meat packages, and when companies make hotdogs or bacon without nitrite as a direct ingredient, they have to let the consumer know. So they are required to label them ‘uncured’ because the standard of identity for bacon and hotdogs requires curing with nitrate or nitrite. However, to label a product as ‘natural,’ artificial ingredients such as nitrites are not allowed. The natural nitrates found in celery powder still create the pink color and cured flavor of conventionally cured meats, so the chemistry is still there and the product looks and tastes as expected. Potentially, a more accurate term would be ‘naturally cured’ or ‘cured with natural ingredients;’ however, that does not meet current labeling laws. 

So, whether cured with nitrites directly or with celery powder, the chemistry is the same and the flavor, color, and eating experience should also be similar. 

Meat Matters' Janeal Yancey grew up in Texas showing pigs in FFA. She became interested in meats through FFA and collegiate meat judging at Texas Tech University. Her doctoral research at Kansas State University focused on improving pork quality. She teaches and conducts research on meat quality at the University of Arkansas. On her “Mom at the Meat Counter Blog,” she shares her point of view as a mom, cattle producer and meat scientist. She and her husband, Ed, also a meat scientist, have two daughters, Vallie and Wyn.

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