Let's talk about food, specifically bacon.
Having been dragged over the coals a number of weeks ago about nitrate and nitrite usage in bacon and processed meat production, I have done an enormous amount of reading, and I am sure that there is still more to do.
To get one problem out of the way first saltpeter is, as I already knew, potassium nitrate. However other nitrogen based compounds including sodium nitrate are also called saltpeter which I did not know. The latter is sometimes referred to as Chilean saltpeter and you will never guess.....was discovered in bat caves in Chile.
Did you know... that potassium nitrate is formed by bacterial action in the decomposition of waste product notably from bat poop, but any demposing organic waste will do it. These decomposed materials were then rained on and the substances produced in that reaction that were now in liquid format. This was then evaporated by the sun forming a powder on the ground which could then be collected, cleaned and dried for further use. Most of the production happened in more arid climates and this powder, saltpeter, became a very tradeable commodity. It started to be produced on an industrial scale in the 1600's. Prior to this it had been used by the Eygyptians and Romans and probably many others as a kind of soap.
So how did they discover that it could be used to preserve meat? Well, decomposing waste happens everywhere in the world, and all sorts of things get thrown into compost heaps, I like to think that one day someone threw a piece of meat onto a compost heap, way back when in history, and it landed in the white powder. And then a few days later someone wandered outside and realised that this piece of meat that had been thrown away had not gone off, so ate it and didn't die and hence they realised that they could use this white powder to keep meat for longer. How did they know that the meat was not off I hear you ask? Well one of the properties of potassium nitrate is that it keeps meat looking pink so that combined with the fact that it did not smell bad, probably tempted them to eat it. After all supermarkets and wealth for many was not "au norme" for the standard of living in medieval times.
More interestingly, and probably the reason why you can no longer buy saltpeter in a shop but can only buy it as a pre prepared curing salt mix, is that it can be used as a gunpowder. Which was discovered by accident by the Chinese apparently during the 9th century.
Anyhow moving swiftly along or we may be here all night.....
As with most magical things that seem to perform a fantastic function for humankind, demand for the saltpeters of the world increased dramatically until some clever old sausage, Joseph Leconte (living in the states but with a name like that historically French) wrote a paper in 1862 on how to manufacture saltpeter. And then a German called Dr Polenske wrote in 1891 about the uses and functions of food preservation and the properties of all these different salts. I cannot guarantee these are the most important people in the development of the product as many Syrians, Egyptians, Chileans, Chinese and Romans came before them but as far as modern development is concerned they are the main men.
Now nitrate salts convert to nitrite salts when they lose one atom of oxygen this happens in the gut by bacteria like e.coli which are present naturally and healthily in your saliva. You cannot stop this process in your body it is normal. So sometimes on labels you will see sodium nitrite rather than sodium nitrate because it makes no difference which one you use, as soon as it enters your mouth it will become a nitrite and that is the same whether it is originally a nitrate in a piece of spinach or a piece of bacon. Both substances nitrates and nitrites exist in nature. All foods that gow in the soil or animals that eat food that is grown in the soil contain nitrate. It is part of the soil and the planets ecosystem.
Ok so that is the easy bit. When nitrites and amines (found in the body as well) combine they create nitrosamines. So if you eat things that have a lot of nitrate/nitrite then your body is likely to make more nitrosamines. Vegetables containing high nitrates also make nitrosamines but they also contain antioxidants and vitamin c to prevent the absorption of nitrosamine by the body which will mostly leave your body in your wee.
Nitrosamines can also be formed during cooking. Cooking at lower temperatures reduces the production of nitrosamines in food. In fact one study I read suggested microwaving as being the best option for reducing nitrosamine production in bacon.
So maybe there is a reason to eat salad with your burgers. Potentially if you have a healthy balanced diet anyway eating your five a day or more of fruit and veg, and do not fall into a high risk category for cancer related diseases then probably a bit of procesed meat, and interestingly beer and some cheeses and milk powder are not going to affect you to any significant degree. All these other foodstuffs are also high in nitrates.
The choice is yours people I have tried to extreme nutshell what I have read to prevent you all falling aleep with the tedium of ploughing through chemical proceses and bodily functions. I hope that I have provided some of the salient points to enable you to make a better informed decision. I am not a Doctor or a trained scientist or a dietary specialist. I am an advocat of being active, eating the best that you can eat, having a well balancd diet and consuming everything in moderation.......well.....accept maybe chocolate and stroop waffles and champagne and....... ;)
I have started to make a vastly reduced nitrite bacon it works out at less than a quarter of the nitrite of the original cure. Initial feedback is variable. I am going to try to design one with only salt but that will take some time and will bring me into contact with botulism prevention which is a whole other blog I think.
My apologies to any chemists, historians and biologists reading this who see massive glaring errors in my incredibly abbreviated topic but in my defence it took me 3 tries to get my 'o' level chemistry and I am only a farmers wife who chops up meat ;)
Happy informed eating everyone
I am farming sheep and goats on the Dordogne/Gironde border with my husband and our 3 children. We have an on farm butchery and sell our meat direct to the public via the markets and delivery points in our local area