NPR Doesn't Know Spit About Saliva, Nitrates or Deli Meat

By Josh Bloom — Aug 30, 2019
An alarmist article by NPR wants us to believe that we're in grave danger. That's because some deli meats have labels that are inaccurate, regarding the presence (or absence) of nitrate, a preservative. Here's the science that explains why the whole thing is nothing but a silly scare.
Papaya King! New York's Best Hot Dogs Since 1932 Photo: NBC News

NPR just ran a scare piece called "Duped In The Deli Aisle? 'No Nitrates Added' Labels Are Often Misleading," which is about, of course, worrying about whether the sliced ham or turkey from your deli doesn't have an accurate "warning label" about whether nitrate/nitrite (1,2) preservatives are added to the meat.

When shopping for processed meats, many health-conscious consumers look for products with words like "no nitrates added" or "uncured" on the packaging. But we may have been misled, experts say.

Allison Aubrey, NPR Eating and Health, 8/29/19


Let's take a look at the experts and examine what they are really saying. The first two quotes are from Charlotte Vallaeys, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports (3):

  1. "Deli meats carrying these labels pose the same health risks as traditionally cured meats because the nitrate and nitrite levels are essentially the same."

This quote contains two separate claims; both are technically true, but also technically confusing, perhaps even misleading. First, deli meats do pose the same health risks as cured meats, but that risk is essentially nil. I will explain this below. Second, nitrite and nitrate levels are "the same" only because they are interconvertible in the body, especially in saliva. 

  1. "The labels could make people think these meats are healthier... [b]ut our tests show they are not."

Again, technically true but misleading. Ms. Vallaeys is implying that nitrate-free labeled meat is healthier than nitrate-preserved meat and that their tests show this. This is wrong. The test she mentions do not address safety, just the presence or absence of nitrate.

It would seem that we are being fed poor information. Should we believe Consumer Reports? 

My colleague Dr. Alex Berezow, who has criticized the magazine in the past, gives us a subtle no:

“If you want to know which VCR is the right one for your family, then Consumer Reports is a fine source. If you want to get information about medicine, you’re better off consulting an astrologer.”

Alex Berezow, Ph.D., 8/29/19  (4)



If you are worried about eating a hot dog, pay attention to what an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tells us:

  • "Approximately 80% of dietary nitrates are derived from vegetable consumption" and...
  • "as such, the dietary provision of nitrates and nitrites from vegetables and fruit may contribute to the blood pressure-lowering effects..."

Bottom will ingest far more nitrates/nitrites from eating fruits and vegetables than you will from meat.


Then you're still out of luck. Your body biosynthesizes nitrates/nitrites in greater quantities than you get from ingesting foods, even broccoli. 

The European Food Safety Committee says:

  • "Although fruit and vegetables contribute 11-41% of exogenous nitrite dietary intake ... this amount is overshadowed by the endogenous reduction of secreted salivary nitrate to nitrite"
  • "Nitrites are produced endogenously through the oxidation of nitric oxide and through a reduction of nitrate by commensal bacteria in the mouth and gastrointestinal tract"

In other words, fruits and vegetables contain far more nitrite than meats, but both are swamped by endogenous production of nitrite which is a source of nitric oxide – a critical signaling biomolecule with multiple functions throughout the body.


If you're wondering why nitrates and nitrites cause cancer despite the fact that your body goes out of its way to make them, isn't it possible that they don't? Yes, it is, There is plenty of evidence that nitrates/nitrites don't cause cancer in a paper in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

It's Labor Day Weekend. Relax. Pop a bunch of dogs on the grill and wash them down with beer (a real carcinogen because of the alcohol). If you're feeling really daring you might even want to serve some coleslaw with the dogs, even the vegetables in the slaw contain more nitrite.

If you're still terrified of the olive loaf (5) just brush your teeth after lunch. And make sure to spit.


(1) I combine nitrates and nitrites because they are interconvertible in the body.

(2) Nitrates are added to many different types of meat as preservatives. They prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.

(3) Ms. Vallaeys and Consumer Reports recently joined forces with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to petition the USDA to end misleading labels on processed meat. Consumer Reports is the Mayo Clinic compared to CSPI. Dr. Berezow has plenty to say about them as well (See How CSPI Undermines Science, Nutrition, And U.S. Dietary Guidelines)

(4) You might want to ask Berezow what year this is. VCR? I hope the 8-track cassette player in his 1981 Chevy is OK.

The Berezow family's wheels.

(5) Olive loaves are simply terrifying, especially when the olives start winking at you.


Josh Bloom

Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science

Dr. Josh Bloom, the Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, comes from the world of drug discovery, where he did research for more than 20 years. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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