Why leading scientists want to ban the food colourant in BACON
That’s the suggestion from leading scientists, MPs and peers who are urging ministers to halt its use on the back of worrying, mounting research.
Used as a preservative — you may see names such as E249, E250 and E251 on ingredients lists, for example — the chemicals also give meats a distinctive pink colour and are thought to increase their shelf life. Manufacturers even claim that nitrites keep meats free from bacteria that cause food poisoning.
And yet evidence being uncovered by leading scientists suggests they significantly raise rates of serious disease — and also may not help to prevent food poisoning, as the manufacturers suggest.
A new study by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) concluded that two-thirds of Britons regularly consume processed meats containing nitrites daily — yet around 60 per cent are unaware that they may significantly increase their risk of bowel cancer.
Should nitrites — chemical additives in most cured meats such as ham, bacon and sausages — be banned because of links to type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer?
Used as a preservative — you may see names such as E249, E250 and E251 on ingredients lists, for example — the chemicals also give meats a distinctive pink colour and are thought to increase their shelf life
The WCRF says that its analysis of scientific research indicates that regularly consuming processed meats containing nitrites is linked to up to one in six bowel cancer cases in men; and one in ten cases in women.
Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in Britain, with more than 40,000 new cases diagnosed every year: 40 per cent of patients die within five years of being diagnosed.
The WCRF claims that a new survey it carried out points to bacon as the chief dietary culprit for causing bowel cancer because it is our most popular processed meat, with two thirds of British meat-eaters consuming it regularly. (An estimated 90 per cent of bacon sold in UK supermarkets contains nitrites.)
Dr Helen Croker, head of research interpretation at the WCRF, said in a news release: ‘More than half of cases could be prevented. Our analysis of global research shows that eating even very small amounts of bacon on a regular basis will significantly increase people’s risk of bowel cancer.’
Reduce the time you spend watching telly — a recent study of 4,099 people found an increase in daily TV time (even as little as an hour a day) was associated with an increase in pain, reports the journal BMC Public Health.
This was more pronounced in people with type 2 diabetes. Uninterrupted sitting can affect blood sugar levels, insulin and other aspects of metabolism, which in turn increase inflammation, and precipitate pain.
Professor David Dunstan, the principal researcher, said reducing TV time can have ‘a profound effect’ on pain related to ageing, and could work ‘hand-in-hand with other therapies’ for chronic pain.
Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) blames nitrites in processed meat for causing 32,000 bowel cancer cases each year. Other studies have also linked nitrites with breast and prostate cancers.
Earlier this year, another serious health risk from nitrites in cooked-meat products was exposed by French investigators in the journal PLoS Medicine.
In January, a team led by Dr Bernard Srour, an epidemiologist at Inserm, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, studied data on more than 100,000 people whose daily diets and health have been monitored for the past 14 years.
The researchers found that those who reported higher intakes of nitrites in the form of food additives had a significantly raised risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
More than 4.9 million people in Britain have this condition and another 13.6 million are at serious risk of developing it, according to the charity Diabetes UK.
The French researchers said that nitrites may disrupt people’s normal metabolisms in ways that cause them to develop type 2 diabetes. ‘Our results provide a new piece of evidence in the context of current discussions regarding the need for a reduction of nitrite additives’ use in processed meats by the food industry,’ the study concluded.
Currently, though, the chief health concern is cancer.
In December last year, scientists at Queen’s University Belfast found that mice fed a diet where 15 per cent of their food was processed meat containing nitrites developed 82 per cent more cancer tumours in their colons and 75 per cent more tumours in their small intestines than mice fed the same amount of nitrite-free pork, reported the journal Nature.
Brian Green, a professor of biology at Queen’s and one of the authors, says: ‘Our study results show clearly that consuming processed meat containing nitrites exacerbates the development of cancerous tumours.’
Another of the authors, Chris Elliott, a professor of food safety, is calling on the Government to ban the use of nitrites in food.
Professor Elliott, who led the Government’s investigation into the horsemeat scandal of 2013 — where packaged foods advertised as containing beef were found to contain undeclared horse meat — told Good Health: ‘Everyday consumption of nitrite-containing bacon and ham poses a very real risk to public health.’
Nitrites occur naturally in water and certain foods, such as vegetables (beetroot, for example, is naturally rich in them), but only when they are used as an additive in processed meats do they pose a significant cancer risk, says Professor Elliott. (To check if bacon or ham products contain nitrites, look for the E-numbers.)
‘These problems occur when added nitrites are present in cooked-meat products,’ says Professor Elliott.
‘This is because the combination of meat and high-temperature cooking turns the nitrites into nitrosamines. These nasty chemicals are linked with cancer, because nitrosamines react with the acid in our guts.’
This reaction can damage gut cells in processed-meat consumers’ DNA so badly that they turn rogue and become cancerous.
Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) blames nitrites in processed meat for causing 32,000 bowel cancer cases each year. Other studies have also linked nitrites with breast and prostate cancers
Professor Elliott argues that manufacturers only put nitrites in processed meats to make them look attractive to buyers and that any claims that they make meat safer are untrue.
‘Nitrites are an unbelievably cheap way to turn meats such as pork into the pink colour that shoppers like and associate with quality and tastiness,’ he says.
‘The food industry doesn’t want to stop using nitrites and it claims falsely that nitrite additives kill bacteria that cause botulism food poisoning. But there are no health benefits at all from including nitrites — only dangers, as the new research [in the journal PLoS] on type 2 diabetes shows.’
Professor Elliott is among a group of scientists, MPs and peers who are urging UK ministers to ban the use of the chemicals in processed meat. These include the Conservative MP Daniel Poulter, a former health minister, who is also a practising NHS doctor.
Last year, Dr Poulter joined MPs from all the major parties in signing a letter about nitrites to the Health Secretary Steve Barclay and Professor Chris Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer for England.
The letter warned: ‘Studies carried out by the WHO; UK, U.S. and European universities; and even the UK Government’s own agencies suggest a link between the consumption of nitrite-cured meat and bowel cancer.’
Those who signed the letter urged ministers to pass ‘legislation to ban the use of nitrites in food production and remove a potential health hazard of which consumers are worryingly unaware’. This move ‘could see an avoidable cause of cancer taken out of circulation’, they wrote.
Professor Elliott complains that health ministers have responded only with indifference so far.
‘In my campaigning for a government ban, late last year I wrote to the Health Secretary to request a meeting but their office replied in an email that they are too busy to speak with me.’
Professor Elliott has also been lobbying the UK meat industry itself to ban nitrites.
‘They make positive noises but don’t do anything,’ he says. ‘I’ve learnt that the British Meat Processors Association commissioned an independent report in 2019 which said that nitrites do not protect against botulism.’
He adds that the confidential study, conducted for the British Meat Processors Association by the consultancy firm, Campden, found that adding nitrites had no significant effect in reducing levels of the toxin Clostridium botulinum in the processing of bacon and ham — because these levels were actually harmless in all processed meat.
A spokesman for the British Meat Processors Association told Good Health that the findings of the Campden study are not credible.
‘Importantly, it wasn’t a formal peer-reviewed research study,’ he said. ‘The tests were only performed once and not repeated so the results can’t be taken as statistically significant and shouldn’t be regarded as a scientifically proven basis on which to form government policy decisions.’
Instead, he says that the British meat industry is already ‘actively engaged in ongoing work to reduce nitrites in cured pork products’.
The researchers found that those who reported higher intakes of nitrites in the form of food additives had a significantly raised risk of developing type 2 diabetes. More than 4.9 million people in Britain have this condition and another 13.6 million are at serious risk of developing it, according to the charity Diabetes UK
He adds: ‘Our producers have been working with the latest scientific research, over several years implementing new methods to get nitrite use as low as possible without jeopardising public health.’
Devina Sankhla, a food policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, which represents British supermarkets, told Good Health: ‘Food safety is paramount to our members and they have strict policies in place to ensure all products comply with UK food legislation.
‘Nitrites have a range of technological functions including acting as a preservative and protecting against life-threatening bacteria.
‘In 2017, The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) completed a re-evaluation of the safety of nitrites added to food, which concluded existing levels in food were safe,’ she adds.
However, the EFSA recently changed its position on nitrites significantly: in October it published a draft opinion that suggests that current permitted dietary levels of nitrites in food may indeed be a serious health concern.
The French government, meanwhile, has declared that it is committed to eliminating nitrites from food production where possible.
Professor Elliott says that Britain should follow suit and go further by banning nitrites: ‘We are in danger of being left behind by the rest of Europe in this vital aspect of food safety.’
Meanwhile, it seems that the public are willing to avoid nitrites, once warned of their potential dangers. The WCRF survey found that more than two-thirds of Britons are open to the idea of swapping processed meat in favour of healthier, affordable alternatives.
The WCRF’s Dr Helen Croker suggests swapping the processed meat in our ‘sandwiches for healthier and affordable alternatives such as tuna, or boiled eggs’.
Alternatively, many supermarkets already stock nitrite-free ‘artisan’ bacon on their shelves. Given the growing scientific qualms about nitrite additives, industrially processed nitrite bacon may become increasingly hard to swallow.