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Are Organic, Nitrate-Free Sausages safer than regular?

Kristin writes:

I’ve been reading that processed meats (such as deli meats and pre-packaged turkey slices) are not healthy  to eat (because of preservatives, as well as processed foods in general being inferior to whole foods). I was wondering if the same can be said of organic chicken sausage brands, such as Bilinski and Al Fresco? Bilinski claims not to use preservatives (No Nitrates, No Nitrites, No Sodium Lactate). Would these chicken sausages still fall under the category of processed foods, and as such, something I should avoid?  Or are they a quick, healthy option to help meet my protein needs? Your insight is much appreciated!

Studies have indicated that processed meat and red meat consumption are associated with increased risks of certain cancers including colon, rectal and prostate cancer.

But here it is wise to note some limitations of epidemiological studies. In epidemiology, large numbers of people are observed over long time frames to draw conclusions about what habits or dietary patterns are associated with disease or health. The trouble is, when the populations studied are enormous, the data isn’t as detailed as could be managed with a smaller study, and the scientists have to make educated guesses as to why certain patterns may be associated with diseases. In other words, the mechanisms of why red meats or processed meats cause cancer is still not certain. There is evidence linking higher intakes of nitrate and nitrite to prostate cancer, as well as evidence for increased risk of colorectal cancer, so nitrate and nitrite-free options like the ones you listed are likely to be lower risk, but other components may be involved as well, such as heme iron and heterocyclic amines formed during high-heat cooking/barbecuing.

I’m not aware of any study that has tested for differential disease risk among people who eat organic processed meat products vs. non-organic processed meats.

A second issue to consider is the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) during high heat cooking of meat products. When meat is grilled or barbecued, carcinogenic compounds are formed. (The amount formed is greater in meat that is well-done or charred.) This reaction does not have to do with preservatives or chemicals in the meat, so nitrate/nitrite-free items would hold no advantage here. Marinating before cooking can reduce HCA formation, as can using other cooking methods like baking, sautéing, steaming, etc., instead of grilling.

Personally, I think that choosing a brand of chicken sausage that contains nothing but chicken, herbs and spices shouldn’t be a concern. I believe that the avoidance of nitrates and nitrates makes them a better choice than most processed meats and I include nitrate free chicken sausage and turkey deli meat in my diet. (I absolutely love Al Fresco chicken sausage, for the record. For lunch meats, I buy either Hormel Natural Choice, Boar’s Head All-Natural line, or Hartford Reserve Natural Turkey Breast: all are nitrate/nitrite free) You don’t have to necessarily buy organic meats, though, to get a product without nitrate or nitrite, just do some label-sleuthing and read ingredients.

Lastly, keep your meats low in carcinogenic HCAs by marinating, removing any charred pieces, and sautéing or baking instead of grilling or barbecuing.

Thanks for the great question!

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  • Brian July 22, 2015, 8:48 am

    There is no such thing as nitrate free smoked sausage it helps lower the oxygen levels to prevent bacteria growth if it was not added it will spoil and is likely to cause botulism witch is deadly if consumed. That is the reason nitrate is added to smoked sausage.
    When added the regulated amounts there is less nitrate in cured meats than in most produce such as celery,spinach.

  • Georgie July 2, 2013, 10:16 am

    Great question Anthony – and I’ve looked into this but sadly I haven’t been able to come up with anything reliable to say that there IS or IS NOT a difference. If I am able to find some reputable information on whether nitrosamines form more or less readily with nitrates from celery vs synthetic ones, I’ll be sure to post.

  • Anthony D'Avanza July 1, 2013, 12:14 am

    Is there a difference in using celery powder from using typical curing nitrates?

  • Tom March 31, 2012, 10:07 am

    Can anyone tell me which of the major grocrie stores sell Canadian Bacon? The little town I live in is limited on what they sell but I can drive 30 miles to San Angelo and there is an HEB there. Do HEB store sell Canadian bacon?

  • Steve March 15, 2012, 7:17 pm

    Everything causes cancer! I would say driving a car on the interstate at rush hour is more dangerous then chicken sausage.

  • Robert February 11, 2012, 7:48 pm

    ok so i have found a place that sells the boars head turkey, i had it in a hoagy it was good, i will never eat deli meats from a grocery store again,,, people nitrate is said to cause cancer.. research it .. where is the FDA when we need it.. has the big corporations bought off the FDA…

  • Dave September 20, 2010, 9:40 am

    I should have said that their labeling is very similar to manufacturers listing Hydrolyzed Plant Protein, Carrageenan, or other terms in their ingredient list instead of Mono Sodium Glutamate.

    Another think to note is that if pork is not cured with nitrates it will not have that pink hue. It will be white in color just like a cooked pork chop.

  • Dave September 20, 2010, 9:28 am

    The term Nitrate Free on the label is misleading. It just means the manufacturer did not add man made sodium nitrate in it’s raw form int he curing process. Instead they use a vegetable extract that is very high in nitrate. The meat still contains nitrates but they don’t have to list Sodium Nitrate on the ingredient list. If there were truly no nitrates added then they would have to add another preservative. If there were no other preservatives then the meat wold not be suitable for sandwich meat unless always kept cold and served within a few days of purchase.

  • admin June 4, 2010, 6:26 pm

    Thanks for swinging by Nicole!! I love them too! Nice change of pace from the ridiculous amount of boneless skinless breasts I cook.

  • Nicole, RD June 4, 2010, 3:00 pm

    I’m glad you posted about this. I am always in a rush grocery shopping and I’ve falsely conditioned myself to thing “If it’s in a casing…pass it by” and like you said, avoiding the nitrates and preserves is the big thing to worry about. And I do love chicken sausage 🙂