We use curing salts (nitrates and nitrites) in some of our products.
This is for several reasons: for flavor—these are the ingredients responsible for the flavor we think of when we think of cured meats (think of how bacon and ham taste in contrast to a pork chop); for color (again, think of the rosy pink hue of a cured ham); and for safety—nitrates and nitrites are incredibly effective at preventing the growth of certain kinds of bacteria (that they've been added, in one form or another, to sausages and other meats for many hundreds of years attests to this fact).
Note that above we specifically said some products. Sausage making and other meat alchemy are rich and diverse traditions in which many products were characteristically “cured”, meaning they were made with nitrates and nitrites. We feel that if a product was traditionally cured, and if the fuller understanding of food safety that we now possess still mandates a measure of caution in its production, then we should hold with tradition and use a curing salt today. For other types of meats, nitrates and nitrites were not historically used and they offer no food safety benefit. In these cases, our stance is essentially “If it ain't broke, don't fix it”. With that said, we'd like to take a few more moments to address two important issues surrounding the use of curing salts.
Are Nitrates Safe? We occasionally hear concerns about the safety of nitrates and nitrites in food. This concern stems from a possible association, first investigated several decades ago, between curing salts and other substances that can cause cancer. We wish to assure our customers in the strongest possible terms that no concern is warranted with respect to this issue. Nitrates and nitrites do not themselves cause cancer, nor is there evidence to suggest that they form carcinogenic substances in the body after being consumed. This is not a matter of opinion or of debate in the scientific community—the American Medical Association has stated, echoing a position held by other prominent health organizations, that the risk of "developing cancer as a result of consumption of nitrites-containing foods is negligible". What's more, there are strict government regulations concerning the amount of nitrate and nitrite that can be added to meat products and, consequently, the concentration of curing salts in cured meats is very low—especially when compared to the amount of nitrate and nitrite we all consume from other sources. The main dietary source of nitrate—over 90%—is constant and unavoidable: your own saliva (or, perhaps, someone else's; it's OK, we won't judge). The remainder comes from drinking water and from the food we eat. To illustrate this, we've tabulated the nitrate and nitrite content of some common foods below; the results may surprise you!
As you can see, if avoiding dietary nitrates and nitrites is a prime goal, it's clear that one should forgo all the leafy greens in favor of bacon and banana sandwiches (Hey, it worked for Elvis. No, wait…well, maybe it was the peanut butter that got him). Of course, that would be a ridiculous notion of healthy eating, and that is kind of the point—the common sense approach is to eat a varied diet, rich in fruits and vegetables along with sources of protein and fat that may include occasional "unhealthy" foods like cured meats, rich cheeses, or ice cream. While common sense rarely gets as much press as the dietary boogeymen of today or yesteryear, we feel that's the way to a life both healthy and enjoyable.
What's the Deal with "Nitrite-Free" or "Uncured" Meats? If you've stepped foot in a certain natural grocery store or shopped for meat at a farmer's market lately, you've probably noticed bacon or sausages advertised as "nitrite-free" or "uncured". If you've taken a closer look at the label, you might have noticed an asterisk with the small-print disclaimer "No nitrates or nitrites added except for those naturally occurring in celery powder". Such products are made with highly-concentrated vegetable extracts, rich in nitrate (see above), rather than with curing salts in their pure form. While at first glance this may seem deliberately misleading to the consumer, to be fair to producers of "natural" meats, federal labeling rules require them to use such terms if their products are made with vegetable-derived nitrates. Labeling red tape aside, one point should be made clear to the consumer: the nitrates and nitrites in celery juice powder and other natural cures are identical to those in regular ol' curing salts. Of course, this point raises the question of "What is natural anyway?", which would lead inevitably to a discussion of chemistry, which makes all our heads hurt. Better, perhaps, to say simply that we use curing salts rather than vegetable-derived curing mixes because the former offer consistency and straightforward regulatory compliance. That said, we are open to exploring other ways to make delicious meats if our customers feel strongly one way or another. If you do, we'd really appreciate your feedback on the matter.
Well, if you've made it this far, thanks for reading! One of us (Dave) could go on and on about this topic, so if you've got any more questions about curing salts, or would like sources for the information discussed above, just drop us a note!