Sodium nitrate is an additive commonly used in the food industry for its preservative properties. In general, it serves as an ingredient in the process of preparation of cured meats such as ham, salami or chorizo. However, its safety has been questioned for years.
The reason is that the presence of additives such as nitrites and nitrates in these foods has been popularly linked to increased incidence of cancer. In this way, sodium nitrate or E-251 is postulated as one of those indicated in the famous WHO verdict of the year 2015 against processed meats, pointing them out as carcinogenic.
Within this context of doubts about additives, some alarmist news has highlighted a increased suicide rate linked to sodium nitrate. It is implied that the consumption of foods containing sodium nitrate could have quite a bit to do with this terrible metric. Is there really reason to worry about it?
Does this additive increase suicides?
Sodium nitrate has multiple functions away from the food world. For example, it is used as a fertilizer, for the purification of gold and also in the production of cement and some types of gunpowder. Although it sounds strange, this does not necessarily mean that it is a toxic agent if we consume it through food. The key lies in the dose, and this is something extremely vital as we will analyze later.
Precisely, sodium nitrate – like many other compounds – turns out to be extremely toxic to health when ingested in large doses, which is why it represents a potential danger to people with suicidal thoughts. So much so that Amazon withdrew the marketing of this product due to the dark intentions that this product could bring.
Specifically, these concerns have been raised In a text published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal. However, some news has misrepresented this information, erroneously linking the consumption of foods containing sodium nitrate with an increase in the suicide rate. In the world of food, sodium nitrate is used in very small and controlled amounts in the food we eat.
Sodium nitrate protects us from food poisoning
As we have seen, the sodium nitrate additive is a common ingredient in many industries, including the agri-food industry. Today the presence of sodium nitrate it is almost irreplaceable for the production of raw-ripened meat derivatives such as salami, ham or chorizo. The explanation for this lies in the pathogenic bacteria Clostridium botulinum.
Clostridium botulinum It is an anaerobic pathogenic bacterium, so it can live in environments without oxygen. This makes it an ideal candidate for spoil cans that, when they receive insufficient heat treatment, they can see a proliferation of the bacteria inside. In this context, cans that show scratches, bumps or bulges should be discarded, since they have many ballots of having developed Clostridium botulinum inside.
Secondly, Clostridium botulinum It is a common enemy in processed meats such as those mentioned above: ham, salami and chorizo. These foods do not receive any heat treatment during its elaboration that eliminates the presence of the pathogen Clostridium botulinum, but are allowed to cure and dry under certain controlled humidity and temperature conditions. During its preparation, salts such as sodium nitrate are used, a preservative that inhibits the growth of the aforementioned pathogenic bacteria. Clostridium botulinum.
If this additive is not used, the bacteria Clostridium botulinum could proliferate in meat derivatives and generate the dreaded botulinum toxin. Yes, you heard right: it is the same compound that gives Botox its name in the world of cosmetics. Botulinum toxin is a highly paralyzing poison and can be fatal in very small doses if ingested. However, when administered in a controlled manner to the skin, it has very interesting aesthetic advantages. On the other hand, in the food field, botulinum toxin is a real terror with legs.
Additives are safe in the doses administered
All the additives that we consume through food have passed through strict food safety controls that guarantee its innocuousness in the doses administered. Even more so in the European Union, where we have a truly privileged food security situation.
Despite this, preservatives such as nitrites and nitrates have been in focus for many years. It would not be unreasonable that in the future its use will be further limited, as has happened with some recent additives such as titanium dioxide. In fact, certain brands of sausages such as ham already boast of not using preservatives such as nitrites and nitrates in their preparation. To compensate for the risks, the hygienic and handling conditions must be exquisite to guarantee the absence of pathogens.
This is not done because an imminent health hazard is detected, but rather as a marketing strategy to adapt to what consumers ask for. It is something that, for better or for worse, can also happen from time to time with certain legal decisions of the European authorities. Many times sheltering under a risk prevention umbrella. That is, weighing the benefits of additives against their small risks.
In short, with the progress of science it is possible to modify the recommendations for the consumption of a substance or additive. That is what science is for, to adapt recommendations based on the latest available findings. However, implying that a commonly consumed food additive can increase the suicide rate is not only sensational and false. It also constitutes a real insult for those people who, unfortunately, live closely with this type of situation.