France is preparing to take measures to reduce the addition of nitrites and nitrates in food products. The government’s commitment comes after the French National Food Safety Agency (Anses) issued a statement recommending lowering the presence of these additives in the diet. And since they are found naturally in some vegetables, but are added to processed meats for preservation purposes, it is the producers of cured meats and cold cuts that will have to work to revise the ingredient list.
Replacing them is not that easy
However, replacing nitrites and nitrates is not so simple because “they serve to prevent the unwanted growth of microorganisms dangerous to human health, such as Clostridium botulinumthe Salmonella o la Listeria. They also help maintain the red color and inviting appearance of the meat, “he explains Alberto Ritieni, Professor of Food Chemistry at the Federico II University of Naples. In the ingredients list they can be recognized by the codes E251 and E252 (nitrates), E249 and E250 (nitrites).
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“As low as possible” approach
According to European legislation, manufacturers cannot add more than 150 milligrams of nitrites per kilo of product. And although the limits are mostly respected, the French agency believes that the intentional addition of both additives should be done according to the “as low as possible” approach, because once cooked or ingested they can turn into harmful substances. In fact, metabolism or cooking can convert nitrates and nitrites into nitrosamines, compounds classified as carcinogens, which, if consumed in excess, can increase the risk of gastric and esophageal cancers. It is no coincidence that in many formulations there is also ascorbic acid, that is vitamin C, an antioxidant that serves precisely to avoid the formation of harmful molecules.
Shorten the expiration date in cooked ham
According to Anses, the reduction must be adapted to each category of products. For example, for cooked ham it could be accompanied by the shortening of the expiry date; for raw ham it should involve greater control of the salt content and temperature during the salting, resting and maturing phases. Some manufacturers, on the other hand, use vegetable extracts or vegetable broths as a substitute for additives, but this is not a real alternative. “Aromatic plants such as rosemary or oregano are excellent sources of antioxidants and have an antimicrobial action, but the risk is to use plants that naturally contain nitrates and therefore the problem recurs” specifies Ritieni. “For these reasons it is not possible to speak of ham or cured meats without nitrates if the addition of vegetables brings the concentrations of these molecules equal to those used as additives”.
Some PDO products do not contain any
Speaking of local products, there are some PDOs, such as Parma ham and San Daniele, which contain neither nitrites nor nitrates, already prohibited in the specification. “The production process and the production area make it possible to control the microbiological risk without the use of additives,” he explains Davide Calderone, director of the Industrial Association of Meat and Salami, Assica. “The slow seasoning and the long salting period gradually lower the water activity and hinder bacterial proliferation. Furthermore, many hams are born in hilly areas, where there is very little humidity. Other types of cured meats, both seasoned and cooked, require instead of a more humid environment and they need to use preservatives to ensure food safety. ” Despite this, Calderone says that many companies are doing research to replace or minimize the use of nitrites and nitrates. “Assica is entirely in favor of a possible lowering of the limits. Also because – he concludes – for some types of cooked and seasoned cured meats you can easily stay below 150 mg of additives per kilo of product”.
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Choose quality products and limit consumption
In the meantime, the best prevention is in the hands of the consumer: choose quality products, not bring more than 150 grams of cured meats and processed meats to the table per week and follow a varied and balanced diet, with at least five servings a day of fruit and vegetables. per day. In Italy, let us know Carlo La Vecchiaepidemiologist at the State University of Milan and researcher of the Airc Foundation against cancer, the direction is good: “On average we consume 17 grams of cured meats per day, so we are below the recommended weekly threshold, and we have more quality compared to northern Europe “.