I didn’t realise quite how much I loved bacon, pancetta, chorizo and ham until the World Health Organization added processed meats to its list of carcinogens in 2015. Those salty, chewy pancetta chunks that send a mushroom risotto stratospheric – if I can resist scoffing the lot before the rice is cooked. The crumbly grain of Christmas ham carved off the bone. Translucent chorizo slices on holiday with a sip of red wine, or fried with potatoes, coating them with red umami oil. I am that disgusting person who dips her fingers in the pan after cooking bacon, to savour the salty melted fat.
Perhaps the health risks aren’t as scary as they sound as long as you’re not eating the stuff every day. But plenty are. Britain is a nation of bacon bap breakfasters, with ham sandwiches a lunchbox staple. We serve these foods in our hospitals and our schools, and once I’d read the cancer news I couldn’t unknow it. I went from thinking of charcuterie as traditional and natural – the stuff of bustling Saturday farmers’ markets – to shunning it as toxic. Once I started checking the ingredients, I saw that even the farmers’ market stuff contained nitrates and/or nitrites. When meat with these additives is cooked and eaten, carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) such as nitrosamine are formed.
Even unprocessed red meat (which includes pork) contains heme iron, which is involved in the formation of NOCs. This is why the World Cancer Research Fund recommends no more than three portions of red meat a week – but, when it comes to processed meat, “very little, if any”.
The additives that make processed meats so much worse are the synthetic compound sodium nitrite (E250), along with sodium nitrate (E251) and potassium nitrate (E252). The latter two are both naturally occurring minerals – although they can be industrially synthesised – and have been used in meat curing for centuries, to give it colour and protect it from deadly bacteria. Other bacteria, during the curing process or in our mouths when we chew the meat, convert the nitrates into nitrites – which is why, collectively, these additives are often referred to simply as nitrates or nitrites.
Even before the WHO’s announcement, I was on board with the idea of reducing meat consumption for the sake of the planet. But I was far from being a vegetarian. So I began to look for nitrate-free pork products. That quest led me to an online seller having a stab at an additive-free ham, but it arrived grey, overly salty and distinctly unham-like. I was bitterly disappointed. My partner tried River Cottage’s traditional dry-cure bacon recipe – using salt and sugar – but the result was too sweet for my tastes, and a very different animal from conventional British wet-cure bacon.
In 2022, the stakes rose. March saw a group of cross-party MPs and eminent scientists writing to the government, urging a phasing out of nitrates. They argued that the additives were linked to the development of breast, prostate and bowel cancer. What’s more, food technology had caught up, they said, and nitrates were no longer needed to make the meats look and taste how consumers expect – the era of grey nitrate-free ham was potentially over.
In July 2022, France announced it would be phasing out nitrates, and in December, research led by Chris Elliott, professor of biological sciences at Queen’s University, Belfast, demonstrated that mice fed on Herta frankfurters (freeze-dried and made into feed pellets) developed 82% more tumours in the colon than those given a balanced rodent feed. Today Elliott and his colleagues are campaigning for schools and hospitals to stop feeding nitrates to children and patients.
Most big stores do now offer an own-brand nitrate-free bacon. Photograph: sergeyryzhov/Getty Images/iStockphoto
The WHO lists processed meat as a “known human carcinogen” along with smoking, alcohol and asbestos, but clearly these substances don’t all carry the same risk. Smoking is the biggest cause of lung cancer, which leads to 35,000 UK deaths per year. Alcohol is linked to seven kinds of cancer, and comes with other health risks such as heart and liver disease, along with serious accidents. Nevertheless, Denis Corpet, professor of food safety and human nutrition in Toulouse, says he never buys so-called nitro-meats. He used to pack charcuterie when he hiked up mountains, but now, he says, “I don’t buy it because we’ve learned so much.” Not that an occasional slice of ham as part of a healthy varied diet is that risky, he says, if it’s anything like the traditional plant-heavy diet of Mediterranean peasants who “couldn’t afford meat very often”. His own research has found that consuming calcium alongside your processed meat can block the carcinogenicity – although this hasn’t been demonstrated in large cohorts yet, so mandatory cheese and ham combinations is nowhere near the official-medical-advice stage.
In the meantime, British supermarket offerings remain disappointingly nitrate-heavy. Most big stores do now offer an own-brand nitrate-free bacon. In my local I can also find one ring of nitrite-free chorizo, Unearthed’s prosciutto and serrano hams, and Finnebrogue Naked’s nitrate-free bacon and ham. Finnebrogue Naked’s bacon is among the most expensive per kilo. And that’s largely it, among shelves upon shelves of nitrates.
France is a little further ahead, says Corpet: “I would say a quarter are nitrate-free now,” and they are only “a little more expensive”.
It was Finnebrogue Naked that first demonstrated in the UK in 2018 that nitrate-free bacon butties were possible. Based in Northern Ireland, the company started out making sausages for M&S, but the WHO’s 2015 report on processed meat gave them an idea. “We thought: we’ve got all this volume of pork; why don’t we step in and try and do this the ‘proper’ way?” says Jago Pearson, chief strategy officer at Finnebrogue. In 2018, the company launched its Naked Bacon (now renamed Better Naked) brand and began producing M&S’s own label nitrate-free bacon. Now it’s supplying Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, Asda and Morrisons.
The secret ingredient Finnebrogue adds instead of nitrates is simply “fruit and spice extracts” according to Declan Ferguson, the firm’s research, development and technical director. It was developed by the Spanish food technology company, Prosur and it is also used in Waitrose Made without Nitrite bacon, made by Pilgrim’s UK.
According to Ferguson, the only reason there has to be any additive at all is to keep the meat pink. A protein in meat called myoglobin naturally turns red and then brown as it oxidises, and the nitrates stop this happening. If the bacon went grey-brown, he says, you couldn’t legally sell it as bacon. The Prosur additive is high in antioxidants, which, says Ferguson, also “stops that myoglobin going brown”. It doesn’t slow the curing process or affect shelf life. “To the naked eye it looks like normal bacon,” he says, “but it actually isn’t the same pink as nitrate bacon and ham – it’s more red.”
Before bacon was made industrially, he says, “it would have been done either through salting or salt plus drying”. Parma and Serrano ham are made similarly: “The more traditional producers only use salt and drying.” Fermented products like salami, for which microbes are essential, can easily be made without nitrates, too, he says. “Nitrates have been introduced over time to help speed up that process and to create something that looks pink and fresh,” says Ferguson.
After the carcinogen story broke in 2015, many in the meat industry claimed that nitrates protected charcuterie-lovers from contracting botulism, a rare but serious disease caused by toxins produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. When Finnebrogue started making nitrate-free bacon and ham, it had to spend a lot of time and money debunking this. “We’ve done ‘challenge-testing’, where we put the clostridium botulinum bugs in the bacon,” Ferguson says. “We tested whether it grew and we were able to prove that it didn’t.”
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) says that nitrates and nitrites “have undergone a safety assessment prior to being authorised” and are “important preservatives which hinder the growth of harmful organisms, in particular the bacteria responsible for botulism”. However, the agency doesn’t insist on their use. “They are one of the ways manufacturers can choose to protect against growth of these harmful organisms,” says Adam Hardgrave, head of additives at the FSA, “but other methods include using pH, water activity [essentially, how much water is available for the bugs to grow], salt, other food additives …”
Cured meats … ‘There are a lot of new nitrate-free trials going on behind the scenes.’ Photograph: carlosgaw/Getty Images
“The other misconception,” says Ferguson, “was that nitrates contribute to flavour, when they don’t give you flavour compounds in themselves. We have won multiple awards for the flavour of our bacon.”
In the US, there has been a clampdown on bacon marketed as “uncured”, which has been spiked with celery or other vegetable extracts instead of the E numbers. It may sound healthy, but it’s not. Like many vegetables, celery is a source of nitrate, and a concentrated extract can indeed stand in nicely for the usual additives. But the end product still contains harmful levels of nitrates, and can now no longer be labelled as “uncured”, or “no nitrate or nitrite added”.
Prosur’s secret ingredient isn’t the only nitrate-free colour enhancer on the market. Ferguson says he is aware of producers in Spain, France and Germany using similar additives, “or different ingredients to make something look red or pink through, say, cherry extracts or green tea”.
David Lindars, technical operations director of the British Meat Processors Association, is surprisingly on board with a nitrate-free future, and says he’s found decent nitrate-free salami at his local Tesco. He also says there are a lot of new nitrate-free trials going on behind the scenes.
“They do take quite some time,” he says, “because you have to be absolutely certain there is going to be no risk to human health.” And the products have to match consumer expectation and shelf life. “It’s really expensive, too. You’re looking at circa £15,000 with one of the highly reputable labs.” Still, that’s small change compared with the cost of new production lines: Finnebrogue spent £20m to get its up and running.
In the meantime, Lindars says, in conventionally cured meats, “there has been a big push over the past 18 months or so to reduce the level of nitrates from 150 parts per million, which is the maximum. Two retailers that I know of have reduced their standard product to 60 parts per million: Co-op and Waitrose.”
While I have cut my meat consumption, I can report that as an occasional treat, Finnebrogue Naked bacon is just as good as regular sliced bacon and, yes, I still dip my fingers in the hot fat. The Artysan Chorizo Riojano IGP ring is equally good, although I wish there was a more spicy version available. Like most packaged ham, I find Finnebrogue’s slices too slimy and grainless. There’s still a frustrating lack of choice. “There will be new nitrite-free stuff coming down the line later this year,” Pearson promises, though he won’t say what.
“Where developments tend to lag the most,” says Lindars, “is in food service,” ie takeaways and restaurants. “Because your bacon roll – or whatever it may be – is cooked in the sandwich shop, the legislative requirements on displaying consumer information is very different.” Customers, in turn, are often less rigorous in seeking nutritional information when eating out. “You tend to be in a different frame of mind,” says Lindars. “It’s kind of an impulse buy.”
But the sense is that change is in the works, largely because, he says, “the consumer dictates, ultimately. You and me, we’re going to buy what we want and what we believe to be good for us.”Explore more on these topics.