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Sodium nitrate (NaNO3) and its close relative sodium nitrite (NaNO2) are preservatives that you find in lots of processed meats. Stuff like salami, hot dogs, pepperoni, bologna, ham, bacon and SPAM all normally contain sodium nitrate as one of the ingredients. Fresh meats generally do not contain any added chemicals, so the question is, "Why is sodium nitrate added to all of these processed meats?"
What’s better, Nitrate or Nitrite?
Nitrates are seldom used today as they are not easy to control when applying to meats and they don't work at refrigerator temperatures. Increasing temperature helps development of bacteria and shortens the useful life of a meat product. Those two factors basically eliminate nitrate from practical use and instead sodium nitrite is commonly used in the USA (Cure # 1) and everywhere else (Peklosol in Poland and in Germany). And the reason it took us so long to figure it out is that although nitrate was used to cure meats for thousands of years, its derivative "nitrite" was only discovered in the last century. To add to the confusion our commonly available cures contain both nitrite and nitrate. All commercial meat plants prepare their own cures where both nitrite and nitrate are used. All original European sausage recipes include nitrate and now have to be converted to nitrite. So what is the big difference?
Almost no difference at all. Whether we use nitrate or nitrite, the final result is basically the same. The difference between nitrate is as big as the difference between wheat flour and the bread that was baked from it. The nitrate is the Mama that gives a birth to the Baby (nitrite).
Nitrite is an even more powerful poison than nitrate as you need only about 1/3 of a tea-spoon to say good-bye, where in a case of nitrate you may need 1 tea-spoon or more. So all this explanation that nitrite is safer for you makes absolutely no sense at all. The main reason is that adding nitrite to meat does not leave much room for a question like: Do I have enough of nitrate or no? In other words, it is more predictable and it is easier to control the dosage. Estimating the required amount of nitrate is harder as it is dependent on :
Temperature (higher temperature more nitrite is released from nitrate)
Amount of bacteria present in meat that is needed for nitrate to produce nitrite and here we do not have any control.The more bacteria present, the more nitrite released. Adding sugar may be beneficial as it provides food for bacteria to grow faster.
Another good reason for using nitrite is that it is effective at low temperatures (36° – 40° F) where nitrate likes temperatures a bit higher (46°-50° F, 8°-10° C). By curing meats at lower temperatures (nitrite) we prevent the development of bacteria what will extend the shelf life of a product and in the case of a commercial plant, it will bring more profits.
When nitrates were used alone, salt penetration was usually ahead of color development. As a result most larger pieces like hams were too salty when colored properly and had to be soaked in water. This problem has been eliminated when using nitrite. Nitrite works much faster and the color is fixed well before salt can fully penetrate the meat.