Imagine opening up your refrigerator door and finding a huge sign: “Surgeon General’s Warning: Quitting deli meat now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.”

You may think this statement is an exaggerated claim about those beloved processed meats, but it isn’t.

The World Health Organization ranks bacon, ham, and sausages alongside asbestos, arsenic, and cigarettes as a major cause of cancer.

Maybe you don’t want to be like an Oscar Mayer wiener after all.

You can combat the cancer-causing risk of processed meats when you understand more about nitrates and their sources.

Let’s start with the basics.

Nitrates occur naturally in our body and soil, air, and water. They are also added to foods in the manufacturing process to extend the shelf-life of specific products by stopping bacteria’s growth. 

Vegetables are very high in nitrates when compared with other food groups. Between 75–80% of our total daily intake of nitrates comes from vegetables, compared with only about 5–10% from drinking water. (Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition), 2003) Top nitrate-containing plants include beets, celery, lettuce, radishes, and spinach.

Does this mean we should stop eating vegetables?  

Not at all!

When we eat nitrates, our saliva converts them to nitrites. Nitrites can be beneficial to us, supporting healthy blood pressure, for example. Nitrites can harm us when nitrosamines form, usually in meat exposed to high heat cooking methods like grilling or smoking. Vegetables, on the other hand, even cooked at a high temperature, are not a problem. Manufacturers also put nitrates and nitrites in processed meats to keep them from spoiling too quickly.

Nitrosamines are the real culprit of cancer risk (primarily gastric and esophageal cancer but also bladder, breast, lung, and other cancers).

So, what can you do to decrease the formation of nitrosamines?

Microwave, rather than broil, your bacon. This cooking method produces fewer nitrosamines.

Be sure to add tomato slices to your ham sandwich or top salsa on your eggs and bacon breakfast. Tomatoes and other citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges, lemons, etc.) contain vitamin C, an antioxidant that stops the formation of nitrites to nitrosamines.

Drink clove or peppermint tea with your meal. Clove and peppermint contain the highest levels of polyphenols, which have been shown to protect against DNA damage caused by nitrosamines. If you toured the Celestial Seasonings tea factory, your breath would be taken away by the potency and aroma of Celestial Seasonings Peppermint Tea!

Consider adding turmeric. Curcuma root powder (turmeric) is beneficial in stopping the formation of nitrosamines, but it tends to be poorly absorbed. According to an independent agency reviewing spices, McCormick Ground Turmeric had the highest concentration of active ingredients and cost less than other brands. The best organic choice was Simply Organic. Doctor’s Best High Absorption Curcumin tested better than most for absorption and can be conveniently taken with or without a meal. 

Look for “no added nitrates” on processed meat packages. Be aware that if the manufacturer uses celery juice or powder as the nitrate source, you might be consuming more nitrates than processed meat preserved with nitrates. 

And finally, and you knew this one was coming. Avoid the risk altogether by choosing unprocessed meats, poultry, and fish. Who likes hot dogs, anyway?