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I LOVE me a good charcuterie board. Our family gatherings always start with a big board filled with mixed cured meats, aged cheese assortments, olives, figs, apples, hummus, nuts, and more meat. Pair that with a nice glass of wine…YUM! As with most indulging, I’ve never felt like this was a “healthy” option to kick off a family dinner, which is always our focus for big meals, far more than taste, but the boards have nonetheless become a tradition.

We have all heard that processed meats are not considered healthy. The World Health Organization has classified processed meats including ham, bacon, salami and frankfurts as a Group 1 carcinogen (known to cause cancer). Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by curing, salting, smoking, drying or canning. Aside from the sky-high sodium content, why exactly are these meats so unhealthy? A new study (here) proposes that the nitrites used to preserve processed red meat could be responsible for the increased risk of cancer. In the study, mice were fed their regular diet, nitrite-free pork, nitrite-free sausage, or sodium nitrite-containing frankfurters. At the end of eight weeks, markers of lipid peroxidation (i.e., free radical damage to cells) increased by a whopping 108 percent, and total GI tumors were significantly higher than the control and nitrite-free groups. Over the years, studies consistently find strong links between processed meat consumption and various chronic diseases. But what if it’s not the meat itself causing cancer? Rather, it’s the way it’s preserved or prepared?

Nitrates and nitrites are compounds that occur naturally in the human body and some foods, such as vegetables. In some forms they can be hazardous, but they may also have health benefits. Manufacturers add nitrites to meat to help preserve it and keep it from turning brown. Once consumed, nitrites can either turn into nitric oxide, which is beneficial for the body or nitrosamines, which can be harmful. Manufacturers have to limit the amount of nitrites they use in processed meats by law, because of the dangers that nitrosamines pose.

So how much is too much? Will my beloved charcuterie board give me cancer?

Well, as far as we know, there is no way to completely eliminate the risk of cancer. However, the American Institute of Cancer Research recommends avoiding processed meats. That means eat as little processed meat as possible. They are considered carcinogens and eating them increases your risk.

So what can we do? You can reduce your nitrosamine exposure by carefully selecting processed meat products that are low in additives that contain nitrates.

You should check the labels for:

  • sodium nitrate (E251)

  • sodium nitrite (E250)

  • potassium nitrate (E252)

  • potassium nitrite (E249)

Also, some good guidelines to follow:

  • look for “nitrate-free” meats

  • buy local or from a farmer’s market

  • find a “pasture-raised” supplier

  • avoid cooking meats at high-temps or burning


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