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15 December 2015

Nitrates and nitrites in the dock – but what are they exactly?

Natural additives to keep botulinum at bay and avoid food poisoning.

Nitrites (identified by the numbers E249, E250) and nitrates (E251, E252) are substances which are naturally present in foods derived from animals and plants and in water.
They are used as additives, in the form of sodium salt or potassium, in sausages, hams, tinned meat and other products made with meat or marinated fish and sometimes also in dairy products.
“Nitrites and nitrates,”explains Guglielmo Scandolara, quality manager of Fumagalli Food Industry, “are compounds that the current legislation includes under the heading of “preservatives” and they play an important “bacteriostatic” role, limiting the growth of certain pathogenic microorganisms that are potentially very dangerous to humans, such as Clostridium botulinum, the producer of botulinum toxin, which causes food poisoning. ”

The new legislation on the use of additives states that in products made with raw meat both nitrites that nitrates can be used, while in products made with cooked meat can only nitrites may be used. “These additives,” Scandolara goes on to say, “also have a secondary effect on the colour of the meat: cooked ham, for example, has a typical pink-hazelnut tint because during cooking the nitrates bind to the heme group of the hemoglobin and the pigment is transformed into nitrosomiochromogen, which has a pale red or pink colour. The same goes for the bright red colour of raw meat.”
Any producer who didn’t use nitrites would have to offer sausages with a grey colour, which is the natural hue of cooked meat.

The nitrates and nitrites in themselves are not carcinogenic, but both because of the action of the metabolism as well as through cooking, they may undergo a series of chemical transformations that convert them to N-nitrosamines, compounds which are considered carcinogenic. The current legal rules concerning the use of nitrites as food additives are based on the principle that allows their use in small quantities for foods in which the health risk of potential contamination with botulinum toxin is much greater than the risks of causing cancer.
In any case, the maximum limit of nitrite permissible under Italian law is 150 milligrams per kilogram of food product.


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