You may think of breakfast as the most important meal of the day, and experts now say that in at least one sense, that's absolutely true. One choice you make at breakfast time could make or break your health later down the line, some scientists warn. In fact, they're calling for a ban of this particular product in the U.K., citing concerns that certain ingredients it can cause several kinds of cancer. Read on to learn which popular breakfast food is on the chopping block, and why experts say the rationale behind its ban "should be relatively straightforward."
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Some foods with this ingredient are perfectly healthy.
Whether your go-to breakfast is safe to eat daily may come down to one simple question: whether or not it contains a certain type of nitrate. "Nitrates are compounds made up of one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms," explains Lindsay Delk, RD, RDN, a registered dietician of over 20 years. Depending on their source, different types of nitrates "behave differently in the body," she says.
Some nitrates, when consumed through plants, are actually good for you. "Nitrates that naturally occur in plant foods are beneficial for your health," says Delk. "The nitrates that naturally occur in leafy greens, celery, and beets come with vitamin C and other antioxidants that help prevent them from being converted into nitrosamines. Instead, your body converts the nitrates in plant foods to nitric acid. Nitric acid helps your blood vessels to dilate, which can improve circulation, decrease blood pressure, and even improve exercise performance," she tells Best Life.
Processed meats often contain unhealthy nitrates.
During the process of digestion, nitrates are transformed into nitrites. Experts from the Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Research on Ingredient Safety say that, depending on their source, certain types of nitrates and nitrates become transformed into nitrosamines, "which can cause harm to human health depending on the level of exposure."
Though there is no recommendation to stop eating naturally occurring nitrates in plant form, added nitrates found in certain processed foods are considered harmful to your health. These are typically used as additives which prevent the growth of bacteria to prolong a product's shelf life, while enhancing its flavor and color.
When used as additives in processed meats, nitrates have been linked with cancer of the breast, prostate, and bowel. Your risk may be especially high if you consume these proteins regularly as part of your daily diet.
This breakfast food could soon be outlawed in some places.
In February, French authorities passed a law prohibiting the use of nitrates or nitrites in processed meats. Now, scientists in the U.K. are following that lead by calling for a ban on bacon cured with these additives. According to Chris Elliott, a professor and the director of the Institute for Global Food Safety at Queen's University in Belfast, "Nitrites are found in many foods and can be perfectly harmless. But when they are used to cure bacon, and that bacon is then cooked and ingested, they produce carcinogenic nitrosamines in the stomach."
Banning them, he says, "should be relatively straightforward. We no longer need these chemicals to make the delicious bacon that so many of us love. If you can make bacon that tastes the same, looks the same and is just as affordable without the need for carcinogenic chemicals, why would anyone choose to use them?"
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Labels can be misleading when it comes to these additives.
If your solution to this dilemma is to select "uncured" bacon at the supermarket, you're in for a rude awakening. Many of these products are still technically cured, but with vegetable-based nitrites—a distinction sometimes used to skirt labeling regulations on cured meat products. These ingredients, just like those found in synthetic potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate, are hazardous to your health, some experts warn. The most common among them is a nitrate derived from celery.
"The only reason to cure meat with celery is to give people the idea that it's in some way better than conventionally cured meat," writes food columnist Tamar Haspel in The Washington Post. "But it isn't better, and veg-curing is a phony-baloney (if you'll excuse the expression) gambit to confer a health halo on products that most definitely don't earn it," she adds.
Since the U.S. is unlikely to ban this type of bacon any time soon, it's probably best to simply limit the amount of processed meats you put on your plate. "The bottom line is to avoid processed meats, such as hot dogs, lunch meat, sausage, salami, and bacon—and eat a diet high in antioxidants such as fruits and vegetables, to reduce the conversion of nitrates to nitrosamines," advises Delk.