Reading Time: 2 minutes The report looks at nitrates used in processed meats like bacon and sausages (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The headlines this week say ham and bacon sold in supermarkets ‘contain chemicals linked to cancer’, leaked report warns. What’s new? We’ve known this for donkey’s years.

What’s new is the reason some of these chemicals are there may be completely unnecessary.

Nitrites are used in the preserving process of meats such as bacon, ham and salami for two apparent reasons – to give it its distinctive pink colour and to lower the risk of food poisoning.


The meat industry claim that nitrates protect against botulinum bacteria which can cause food poisoning. But a leaked report from the British Meat Processors Association suggests that the chemicals don’t actually destroy this bug. Evidence suggests that there is no difference in the level of infection seen in meat treated with nitrites and nitrite-free meat.

A significant body of research suggests that nitrites are one of the reasons meat is linked with cancer. This was one of the reasons why in 2015 The World Health Organisation classed processed meat as a carcinogen – a substance that causes cancer.

This is also why The World Cancer Research Fund advises avoiding processed meat – that means no bacon or ham ever.

Food and illness

N-nitroso-compounds (NOCs) are potent human carcinogens – they cause cancer. They might find their way into your gut either in processed meat or smoked cheese (treated with nitrites) or they may be produced in the gut – the type of iron in meat (haem iron) can promote this. So people who eat meat are exposing themselves to this potent cancer-causing substance.

One study looking the faecal content of NOCs (that have passed from the guts out of the body in poo!) found it was 60 times higher in volunteers given cured meat than in volunteers given a vegetarian diet.

‘Highly embarrassing’

Could it be be that people are taking a huge gamble for little or no reason? Baroness Walmsley, Vice-Chair of Parliament’s All-Party group on cancer, told the Observer: “This leaked internal report is highly embarrassing for the processed meat industry and for the Food Standards Agency which have persistently peddled the myth that nitrites are essential to protect against botulism.

“This evidence raises serious questions about why nitrites are being added to our bacon and ham.”

You can find out more about the health risks posed by meat in Viva!’s fully-referenced report Meat the Truth

Dr. Justine Butler of Viva!

Dr. Butler graduated from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology and a BSc First Class (hons) in Biochemistry from UWE before joining Viva! in 2005. She currently researches, writes and campaigns for Viva!Health.