Meat Matters: The Truth Behind Curing Meats
Dr. Janeal Yancey, University Of Arkansas
via FarmJournal's Pork - June 5, 2019
In the pork business, we love our cured meats – bacon, ham, hotdogs, sausages. In the U.S., more than 60% of the pork carcass is processed, and a large portion of those cuts are cured. These products are a staple of the American diet, but unfortunately, the process of curing and some of the ingredients used have gotten a bad reputation as unhealthy or even carcinogenic.
Why do we cure pork?
Curing is one of the oldest methods of preserving meats. Many historians think the process was accidently discovered when salt, contaminated with nitrates, was rubbed on meats, creating a new flavor and eating experience.
In the modern pork industry, curing ingredients, such as sodium nitrite, are added to ham, bacon or sausage for four main reasons:
1. Nitrites produce a pink color that consumers expect, and the color is stable in the package for a long shelf life. Longer shelf life means less waste.
2. Cured pork products have a distinct, savory flavor. Think about how a ham tastes different than a pork roast.
3. Nitrites and salt work together to keep the pork from going rancid and protect the flavor.
4. Nitrites prevent the growth of pathogens, especially Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism. They also prevent spoilage bacteria from growing in cured meats.
Without getting too deep into the chemistry, nitrates and nitrites are very similar molecules. Nitrate has one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms, whereas nitrite has one nitrogen and two oxygen atoms. In the body and in meats, nitrate is converted to nitrite. These compounds are typically combined with a sodium or potassium when added to a meat product, and that’s how they will appear on the ingredient statement. In the meat, the nitrite is further converted to nitric oxide and reacts with the color pigments and heat to change the color to pink.
How do we get cured meats without nitrites? ...