Science Says: Are hot dogs healthier without added nitrites?

NEW YORK — Backyard cooks looking to grill this summer have another option: hot dogs without “added nitrites.”

Are they any healthier?

Oscar Mayer is touting its new hot dog recipe that uses nitrite derived from celery juice instead of artificial sodium nitrite, which is used to preserve the pinkish colors of processed meats and prevents botulism. Kraft Heinz, which owns Oscar Mayer, says sodium nitrite is among the artificial ingredients it has removed from the product to reflect changing consumer preferences. The change comes amid a broader trend of big food makers purging ingredients that people may feel are not natural.

But nitrites are nitrites — and the change makes little difference — according to those who advise limiting processed meat and those who defend it.

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Kana Wu, a research scientist at Harvard’s school of public health, said in an email that it is best to think of processed meat made with natural ingredients the same as those made with artificial nitrites.

Wu was part of a group that helped draft the World Health Organization report in 2015 that said processed meats such as hot dogs and bacon were linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. She notes WHO did not pinpoint what exactly about processed meats might be to blame for the link.

One concern about processed meats is that nitrites can combine with compounds found in meat at high temperatures to fuel the formation of nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens in animals. It’s a chemical reaction that can happen regardless of the source of the nitrites, including celery juice.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture caps the amount of artificial nitrites that can be added to meats to prevent excessive use, said Andrew Milkowski, a retired Oscar Mayer scientist who consults for the meat industry. Meat makers also add ingredients to processed meat like bacon that help block the formation of nitrosamines, he said.

Though the terms nitrates and nitrites are used interchangeably, the meat industry says it’s mainly sodium nitrite that companies currently use to cure meats such as hot dogs, cold cuts and bacon.

For Oscar Mayer hot dogs, the packages now list ingredients like celery juice that has been treated with bacterial culture. That turns the naturally occurring nitrates in celery juice into nitrites that serve a similar purpose.

While the nitrites derived from celery juice…

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