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The Cure Controversy

Tanner and I have been working with outside processors for a long time now, and one thing we have always requested is a “natural cure” for our smoked bacon products. The most common “natural cure” is celery juice powder (or something similar like beet, cherry, etc.). Now that we’re running our own butcher and making our bacon in house, we’ve learned a thing or two (or 1,000) and have decided to turn our backs on celery juice powder. Why? Well, mostly because it isn’t really natural, and can actually be worse than “artificial” nitrate. In fact, there was even an attempt to get celery juice powder banned from use in certified organic foods in 2019. However, it was shot down, likely because some sort of nitrate has to be added to smoked products, and celery juice powder deceivingly sounds the healthiest. But at the end of the day, the whole purpose of coating meat in celery juice powder is for the nitrates.

Spoiler Alert: for our smoked bacon, we are doing away with celery juice powder and switching to pink salt (not really salt, it’s artificial nitrate). For those that want truly natural and nitrate free bacon, we are offering two more varieties of truly uncured bacon – our Uncured Savory Bacon, (containing just seasonings, salt, and pepper), and Uncured Bacon (with just salt and pepper only). The two nitrate-free options are not smoked and will not last as long in the fridge since there is no nitrate preservative, but they’re very scrumptious. 

There's one thing I want to be crystal clear about – the nitrate will only be in smoked products, since nitrates have to be added to smoked products to prevent botulism from forming (whether it is through celery juice powder or sodium nitrate). In conventional meats, nitrates are also commonly added in non smoked products to extend shelf life, however for 1915, we will only use it in smoked products as that’s the only place we see it as necessary to keep our meats safe.

Background to Our Decision 

While I’ll say the common perception regarding nitrates is that they may not be great for you, actually most of the nitrates and nitrites we consume are in the form of leafy vegetables. Even water can contain a small amount of nitrate and nitrites, at much higher quantities than processed meats. 

When nitrates are cooked at high temperatures in combination with amino acids from the meat, it’s possible that the nitrites can convert to nitrosamines – an organic compound that also exists in many plants and water at low levels – which may be carcinogenic. This information motivated many people to buy ‘nitrate-free’ bacon, which they’ll likely pay a premium for. The labels of the nitrate-free bacons always mention in small print, “except for nitrates naturally occurring in celery juice powder.” Before gaining too much peace of mind from that claim, the reason for using celery juice powder is for the nitrates. Whether the nitrates are from celery or pink salt (sodium nitrate), they all break down the same in the body. 

The question we as consumers might consider asking is – how exactly do nitrites from celery differ from artificial or “sodium nitrate”? 

Before we dive into the differences, you may be wondering – why do we need nitrates anyway? Why not just let the bacon be? Well, when it comes to the salting and smoking of meat, a technique of preserving meat humans have been using for millennia – we must use nitrates to avoid botulism, a form of food poisoning. The growing popularity of food products marketed as “organic” or “all natural” has resulted in a major effort to meet consumer demands. But is it genuine? 

Certified organic foods are not permitted to use chemical preservatives, including the traditional curing agents, nitrite and/or nitrates, for bacon, salami, deli meats, etc., The solution – celery juice powder. These labels paint the picture that nitrate-free bacon is healthier, but is that really the case? At first glance, celery juice powder certainly sounds healthier than ‘sodium nitrate.’ However, the nitrates in celery are still …nitrates. And this so-called better for you bacon may contain more nitrate than conventional bacon.

Of course, there are regulations put in place by the USDA with regard to curing meat with sodium nitrite. Surprisingly, there are no limits for use of celery powder for nitrite, as it’s not recognized as a curing agent by the USDA. That knowledge, compounded with the fact that non-organic celery is used to produce celery powder, plus the irony that celery absorbs the highest level of pesticides according to the Environmental Working Group…lead us to begin seriously questioning whether celery juice is the healthiest. We weren’t the only ones with doubts – in 2019, Consumer Reports and Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the USDA to revise its labeling laws around the ingredient, which they said were “actively misleading” to consumers. The petition was unsuccessful, resulting in an 11-1 vote and a statement from the USDA: “In terms of human health risks from nitrates/nitrites in food, there is no difference between celery or other plant-based nitrate sources versus synthetic nitrates and nitrites used on non-organic meats.” And listen to this – the USDA doesn’t even recognize celery powder as a safe curing agent for meats, requiring meats that use celery powder as the curing agent to be labeled “Uncured.” Talk about a win for companies trying to market their products as “healthier,” but what I’d consider a major loss for consumers and transparency.

As we brought meat processing in-house this year with the opening of the 1915 Meatery, we experienced first-hand just how much celery juice powder it took to safely cure pork bellies for bacon. Not knowing the amount of nitrate occurring in the celery juice powder made us question whether this was the right move. If people understood how little pink salt (nitrate) is required for smoked products to prevent harmful bacteria when you start with pasture raised, high-quality meat, we think they might have a less negative response to seeing nitrates on a label. 

This just goes to show the importance of having the opportunity to know your farmer and ask these questions, or in this case, know your butcher. 

To reiterate, we have multiple bacon options to choose from – from our Smoked Bacon (that does have nitrate) to our 100% Uncured varieties, because we want to give you the ability to choose whatever you feel is best for you and your family. 

To be 100% honest, I don’t love the fact that “sodium nitrate” will be listed on the ingredients of our smoked products, as I know I will likely get inundated with questions about being “natural,” but the truth is, when it comes to nitrates (regardless of source), natural doesn’t exist in my book. It’d be so much easier to just use celery juice powder, but I’m not going to market bacon cured with celery juice powder as natural or nitrate-free, because it is not. I feel like it’s deceiving and misleading. The best I can do is explain our decision to you, express our why, help educate, and offer multiple options to enjoy our pasture raised bacon.

Comment below if you have any questions! 


Sources: Wisc.edu, euronews.com, govinfo.gov, cbsnews.com, TheCounter.org, cspinet.org

11 comments

Melissa Monaco

And this is right here is why I am a loyal customer. Thank you for making educated decisions and sharing them with transparency. Can’t wait to try house-smoked deliciousness in my next order!

Johnny

Excellent and informative article.

Clint Dobbs

I appreciate your and Tanner’s efforts to produce and provide ethically grow and provide clean/healthy meats. Your passion to educate the consumer is to be commended! I love what the 1915 Farm is doing, keep on doing it!

LoriDawn Messuri

THANK YOU for your due diligence and sharing your knowledge! My husband is starting to make bacon from our pig we had processed. I did not want him to use nitrates but he explained that he had to in order to cold smoke the bacon. This is so informative! I probably would have looked into the celery juice powder thinking it was better for us (sure does sound like it!) so I hugely appreciate your analysis! I’m sure he will too!

Michelle

I am interested in this topic and thank you for addressing it. However, I was confused by the many times I wondered if you meant ‘nitrate’ instead of ‘nitrite’. For example, your sentence : "The question we as consumers might consider asking is – how exactly do nitrites from celery differ from artificial or “sodium nitrate”? Then there is this sentence: Of course, there are regulations put in place by the USDA with regard to curing meat with sodium nitrite.Surprisingly, there are no limits for use of celery powder for nitrite, – did you mean nitrate? I suppose I need to know the difference between nitrite and nitrate – does one cause more cancer than the other ? Does one come from the other? Does one cure better or do you need both to cure ?
Anyway, I appreciate your dedication to producing the highest quality meat products you can. Thank you! And I love your concept of treating the land, and livestock properly!

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