What is “nitrite-free” ham?

What is “nitrite-free” ham?

The growing number of manufacturers using “Nitrite Free” as an advertising slogan to sell hams and bacon is one of my biggest bugbears of late. Okay, it may not be up there with the “cigarettes are good for your health” adverts of a few decades ago but ham is close to my heart and I hate the fact that marketers can be so disingenuous. So what’s the fuss?

There has been much discussion in the press in recent years about the possible adverse health effects of nitrites and nitrates. Our position is that whilst these preservatives (which have been in use since Roman times) are harmful when taken in large quantities, there can still be a place for cured meats in a sensible and varied diet. There are strict controls on how much nitrate or nitrite can be added to foods, and we are scrupulously careful to ensure that we don’t use a scrap more than is necessary.

The simple fact is that the attractive pink colour of hams is due to nitrites. A ham without nitrites, when cooked, would have the dull grey-brown colour of cooked pork. More importantly, nitrites are a vital part of our defence against some of the most dangerous food poisining bacteria that can cause serious problems such as botulism. Nitrite-free ham or bacon is little more than salty pork.

So, how can some producers claim to offer hams and bacon with “no added nitrites”?  The trick they employ is to use celery (famously amost entirely water), which which can be grown with a generous dose of fertilizer ( that’s nitrate!!) in the water – and hey presto! you have a “natural” ingredient absolutely bursting with nitrate – about 1,000 parts per million in the fresh celery. The celery can then be juiced, or dried out and ground up, and added to the meat during curing, and appears on the label with the innocent description of as “celery” or more likely as “natural flavouring”, when really it’s just a way of sneaking the nitrates in through the back door. With Dukeshill, what you see on the label is what you get!

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8 thoughts on “What is “nitrite-free” ham?”

    • Hi Nigel,
      I agree with the science behind nitrosamine being the culprit, although I believe a lot of the concern comes from trials where extremely large doses were used to show any deleterious effect or carcinogenicity. I can’t argue with the advice that nitrite-containing meats should only be consumed “in moderation”. Your suggestion about nitrite-free ham is interesting; the problem lies with the different ideas of what “ham” is in different parts of the world.
      Parma Ham is certainly made without added Nitrite (although it’s likely that there is some Nitrite present in any sea salt that they use). These “crudo” hams, though, are eaten raw; and the meat still has the red hue of raw meat. In the UK we tend to eat our hams cooked, a regional preference stemming I suppose from our cold, damp climate which is less conducive to air drying. When ham is cooked, it will lose any semblance of pinkness and turn grey (think roast pork). This would apply equally to and Italian or Spanish ham. It is the Nitrite in a “UK” ham that makes it pink, and I don’t think anyone has found a way around that.I don’t think that UK consumers are ready for grey ham just yet! As I have stated in a blog post, there ARE producers who sell so-called Nitrite-free cooked hams, but these are made using such ingredients as “celery extract” – a wholly disingenuous way of adding Nitrate and Nitrite, just as guaranteed to form Nitrosamine, but with a less obviously clear ingredients declaration. Personally, I treat ham as I do any of the other foods that are supposedly bad for me: I only eat them in moderation, I eat lots of healthy foods, and I treat all the conflicting medical advice with just a tiny pinch of salt (which is also bad for you!).

  • What really annoys me is that I have an allergy to nitrates, and every time I have been conned into purchasing “nitrate-free” bacon and ham, I have had an allergic reaction. Another term they use is saltpetre. I purchased the “Naked” brand most recently, using the disguise of natural flavourings as you said, and again had a reaction. I think it is *dangerous* that food companies are allowed to deliberately mislead customers into thinking their products are free of a well-known allergen. I can’t believe they are allowed to get away with it.

  • Really I don’t see what is so bad about the idea of a ham that is pork chop coloured rather than pink! Sooo much better than cancer and really does it matter? We don’t mind that our other meat cuts are brown. Most things are habit and after a while I don’t see why it should matter a joy to anyone when it is so much healthier.

    • Hi Ros,
      You may well be right, but I suspect that consumers would take some convincing! We are so conditioned to judge the freshness and palatablility of food based on appearance and particularly colour, I fear that packs of grey hams would sit untouched on shelves. A related example is seen in the trays of red meat that you see on supermarket shelves: they have been packed in a modified atmosphere to extend their life. The best way to extend the shelf life of these products is to flush out all the Oxygen and just pack in Nitrogen and Carbon Dioxide (we do this with cooked ham in fact). Unfortunately, starving the steak (or whatever) of Oxygen also robs it of the bright red hue that customers associate with freshness – so Oxygen is added, at the expense of shelf life, because studies have shown that consumers simply will not buy dull, brown steak…even if it’s completely safe! The good news is that the pink colour of ham requires absolutely tiny amounts of nitrite. I do agree however, that if the technology can be found to reduce further (or even completely) the need for nitrites without losing the intrinsic qualities that make ham so special, that would be great.

      • I hear what you are saying but I still think habits are just habits and can be changed. When we change a habit and are used to a new way of doing things often we wonder how we could have done it the old way, eg drinking tea with loads of sugar or the habit of eating all kinds of sugary things which can become more and more compelling until a determined action is taken Once the habit is broken it’s often easy the new way. The question is I guess who is going to pay for making brown coloured meat the norm (no one complains about cold beef cuts bring brown). That’s the real question isn’t it? If the idea was pushed/advertised it would become normal. I understand that is more difficult than leaving things the way they are but I absolutely hate the defeatist idea that people have to eat what’s really bad for them because because that’s what they are used to. How about selling to health food stores to start with where people actively search out food that is as good for them as they can find, with an advertising campaign. . Being the new healthy option could be the selling point that is competed for. There’s a challenge! Whst’s wrong with offering a choice similar to organic food which lots of people insist on even if the numbers are fewer. Where there is a will there is a way. And Dukeshill hams are already known for high quality, this could be the next step. It can be done if you want to.

    • Having tried cooking nitrate free , grass fed etc etc gammon.. just not the same as organic free range ham not claiming to be totally nitrate free. It actually tastes more like pork, not the same texture basically not particularly pleasant.. I eat nitrate free bacon. It’s just the gammon. I cook for my family so the don’t buy processed cooked meat .They unanimously don’t enjoy the totally nitrate free. Should I cook it differently!

  • I wholeheartedly agree with Ros, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a natural pale coloured bacon or ham, especially as pork is pearl coloured when cooked. These days the colouring of kippers and haddock is a sign of an inferior product. There are many customers out there including myself who are seriously questioning the continued addition of nitrites and nitrates by producers. I did not order any ham this Easter; I buy less than half the quantity of bacon these days. I’ve seen two of my friends die of bowel cancer, and it’s no joke.

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