As of this month, Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian International relief agency, estimated that as many as 5.5 million people in South Sudan alone will be on the brink of famine, while, according to the United Nations, 20 million internationally face the same fate.

In contrast, in the U.S., over half the population is either obese or overweight, and gluttony is the norm. We are a population of people living in a country whose standard of living is comparatively high, yet fail to be grateful for the advances in food science we benefit from – advances that free us from the day to day task of personal food production. We instead find some new, irrelevant issue to make ourselves miserable with or complain about, and attempt to demonize just about every advancement food technology has produced to make our lives more comfortable. Food additives and preservatives are a good example.

Food additives and preservatives perform a wide variety of safe and necessary functions such as the prevention of spoilage, mold growth and rancidity, and serving the roles of antioxidants, emulsifiers, coloring and flavoring agents and nutrients. This can include any substance used in the production, processing, treatment, storage, packaging, or transportation of the food. As an example, salt to preserve meat, herbs and spices for flavoring and sugar to preserve fruit. Those who fear them could eliminate them if they are willing to grow, harvest, grind, can, cook and then accept the limited choices they would have. Also, be prepared to spend all your “free” time repeating this cycle to feed a family, and hopefully do a sufficient enough job to prevent spoilage.

Alarms over nitrites is a good example of an unfounded phobia. In processed meats, the nitrites function as an antioxidant, prevent botulism, maintain color, aroma, flavor, as well as increase the shelf-life of the product. Nitrites are a natural product derived from the breakdown of nitrates. Nitrates occur naturally in large quantities in a variety of vegetables and your saliva, which are the sources for approximately 80-90 percent of the naturally occurring nitrates you consume. When nitrate from food and your saliva meets bacteria present in the mouth and intestines, it is reduced to nitrite. As an example, just one-fourth a cup of spinach contains 370 mg of naturally occurring levels of nitrates the body will convert to roughly 30 mg of nitrite at the known 8 percent conversion rate. This is a naturally occurring process, and no one will suggest that spinach is bad for you, except maybe your 5-year-old and the media.

Keep for a moment the 30 mg of nitrite from just a quarter cup of spinach in mind as you read the following national news headlines that were associated with a study appearing in the British Journal of Cancer, in 2012. This study made national headlines and purportedly showed – which it did not – the carcinogenic properties of a minuscule .19 mg of nitrite added to processed meats, or 2 percent of your normal intake from food.

  • Fox News: “Two slices of bacon a day increases cancer risk by a fifth” (Jan. 13, 2012).
  • USA Today: “Study links processed meat with increased risk of pancreatic cancer” (Jan. 13, 2012).
  • CBN: “Processed meat increases risk of pancreatic cancer” (Jan 20, 2012).
  • CBS News: “Pancreatic cancer risk increases with every 2 strips of bacon you eat” (Jan. 13, 2012).
  • Huffington Post: “Processed meat could raise pancreatic cancer risk” (Jan. 13, 2012).
  • ABC News: “A link Between Sausage and Cancer?” (Jan. 13, 2012).

How is it possible that a reasonable serving of processed meat, that contains roughly 158 times lower quantities of nitrite than a quarter cup of spinach, be so problematic, according to the media? If two slices of bacon will increase my pancreatic cancer risk by a fifth, then what will happen if I consume the 30 mg of nitrite from the spinach? Was Popeye aware of this? Should I forgo the spinach and bring on the ice cream?

Here is what the researchers themselves point out in the body of the paper regarding the limitations of the study, which the media failed to report:

  • Our study has some limitations [emphasis added]. First, as a meta-analysis of observational studies, we cannot rule out that individual studies may have failed to control for potential confounders, which may introduce bias in an unpredictable direction.” In other words, they are questioning the reliability of the data they are evaluating.
  • “Only a few studies adjusted for other potential confounders such as body mass index and history of diabetes.” In other words, they are stating that other lifestyle and personal health issues or variables were not accounted for, which are far more likely to have accounted for the purported increased rate of cancer.
  • “Our findings were likely to be affected by imprecise measurement of red and processed meat consumption and potential confounders.” In other words, they really had no idea of the personal consumption levels of red and processed meats of the subjects studied.

At this point, anyone with any common sense, devoid any science background, should simply be stating “are you serious?” How can the media objectively review the author’s own comments regarding the studies design flaws and extrapolate this into the attention-grabbing headlines associated with this “study”? The acknowledgment by the authors themselves that their study is essentially junk-science should have prevented the type of headlines that associated one hot dog or two slices of bacon to “increasing cancer risk by a fifth.” Are you really going to change your daily lifestyle habits based upon this poor reporting? Enjoy your hot dog.

My full review of the British Journal of Cancer piece on nitrites in processed meats can be found here.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.