Non Meat Ingredients – sodium nitrate, salt, phosphate, etc. What are they and what purpose do they serve?

Jul 24, 2015

The ingredients added to processed meat are there to: enhance shelf life, perform specific functions related to the processing techniques and give the product a distinctive flavor and appearance. The USDA requires that additives be approved by the FDA and sets limits regarding the amount of an additive that can be used in a product These additives must meet a specific, justifiable need in the product and must not be used to deceive consumers with regard to freshness, quality or weight. The USDA requires that additives be truthfully and properly listed on the product label.

Some not meat ingredients are added in the processing phase to enhance the product. Sodium nitrate is used to cure the meat and helps to prevent the growth of bacteria. It is similar to the process that has been used since before refrigeration. The sodium nitrate and nitrite in processed meats contributes to less than 5% of the recommended daily intake. Salt helps to enhance the flavor and is used to extend the shelf life. Phosphate helps to maintain the moisture in the meat. It also helps to provide a juicy and tasty eating experience while preventing off flavors from fat developing.


What are nitrates and nitrites?

IMG_7904Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are ingredients used in meat products that extend the shelf life and act as antimicrobial against pathogenic bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum and Clostridium perfringens. Therefore, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies nitrate and nitrite as preservatives. The USDA also classifies nitrate and nitrite as curing ingredients because of the biological reactions that occur with meat products when they are added.  These reactions result in the traditional ‘pink’ color in cured meat products, such as ham.

How much nitrate and nitrite are allowed in our meat products?

The FDA regulates the maximum nitrate and nitrite levels legally allowed in meat and poultry products. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, the level of sodium nitrite in cured meat products cannot contain more than 200 parts per million and the level of sodium nitrate cannot contain more than 500 parts per million. Nitrates are not allowed in any curing method for bacon.


Lessons on Meat

Sindelar, J. What's the Deal with Nitrates and Nitrites Used in Meat Products? Retrieved from

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