- The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is planning rulemaking to prohibit the statements “No Nitrate or Nitrite Added” and “Uncured” on products processed using any source of nitrates or nitrites — either synthetic or natural, according to a letter sent December 10 in response to a 2019 petition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Currently, the governmental regulatory agency allows companies to make these claims when using natural sources of nitrates such as celery salt.
- Additionally, the FSIS plans to designate non-synthetic sources of nitrates or nitrites as curing agents. The FSIS intends to publish the proposed rule changes in May 2021.
- Companies are cleaning up their food labels, and 'nitrates' is one of the many terms they are looking to erase. With health risks associated with this preservative ingredient, food manufacturers have relied on natural sources of nitrates to extend shelf-life but not alienate consumers that reject unfamiliar or artificial ingredients.
Food needs to be preserved to ensure it is safe to eat when it reaches the table, and nitrates accomplish this task by preventing the growth of dangerous bacteria while also giving processed meats the “cured” flavor and pink color to which consumers are accustomed.
Despite their usefulness, nitrates continually appear on lists of ingredients that have fallen out of favor with consumers. In April 2019, Consumer Reports conducted a survey where 46% of respondents said they look for a “no nitrates added” label when purchasing deli meats.
The reason for the preservative’s lack of popularity is its link to health risks. Studies have found the substance is sometimes converted by the body into carcinogens that may spur tumor growth. In fact, in its petition, the Center for Science in the Public Interest noted nitrates have been linked to cancer. The consumer group argued those compounds found in naturally occurring sources of nitrates are chemically identical to synthetic ones.
“When consumers see a claim like ‘no nitrates added’ on meat, they think the product is healthier,” Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at CSPI, said in a statement responding to the USDA letter. “A lot of us are surprised to find out that a healthy food like celery can be extensively processed to make the same compounds in the body as synthetic nitrites do when eaten. Removing the 'no nitrates' claims will help, but without a clear disclosure many consumers are not going to recognize that these meats are processed with nitrates and nitrites.”
Consumers are continually pushing manufacturers to develop products that are free from food additives and synthetics, ingredients listed with recognizable names and no chemical implications, and products that are minimally processed.
To offer a cleaner solution to nitrates, ingredients like sage, salt and vinegar are commonly used as preservatives in processed meats like sausages. Citric acid, ascorbic acid and rosemary extract are examples of natural preservatives that can extend shelf life. Clean label technologies including high-pressure processing and aseptic packaging also can help manufacturers extend shelf life, maintain flavor and keep food products safe to eat without using artificial ingredients. However, the cost and functionality limit the viability of these alternatives.
At the same time, replicating the preservation properties of nitrates without compromising on the taste, appearance and texture of a product has proven difficult. This has paved the way for the use of natural sources of nitrates like celery juice, which is not chemically different from synthetic forms. In fact, the BBC noted the majority of nitrates people consume come from vegetable sources.
This chemical similarity has led to a large loophole for manufacturers that are keen to declare their products are nitrate-free by allowing them to use vegetable-based nitrates. Now, this rule change will remove this capability for manufacturers and force them to consider another alternative to naturally occurring nitrates if they want to retain their clean label declarations.
Companies across the board will be affected by this rule change. However, some manufacturers have already begun looking for other options outside of natural nitrates.
Several years ago, Tyson removed all added nitrites and nitrates from its Ball Park brand hot dogs, replacing the chemicals with natural alternatives. Kraft Heinz renovated its entire portfolio of hot dogs to ensure it didn't have added nitrates or nitrites, artificial preservatives or by-products. If this USDA proposal goes into effect, the number of companies that rely on natural alternatives to preserve their products will likely jump dramatically.
The petition also requested that companies proactively post a disclosure on all products prepared with any sources of nitrates or nitrites as a coloring, flavoring, curing agent, antimicrobial, or other similar uses. However, instead of granting the request, the FSIS said it “intends to propose to amend and clarify its meat and poultry labeling regulations to establish new definitions for ‘Cured’ and ‘Uncured’.”