Should nitrites in meat products be banned? Another study links the preservatives to bowel cancer

Nitrites in processed meat have been linked to increased risk of bowel cancer
Nitrites in processed meat have been linked to increased risk of bowel cancer   -  Copyright  Canva
By Luke Hurst

A leading scientist in the UK has called for the country to ban the use of nitrites in processed meat, after publishing a study that adds to the body of evidence showing the additives can increase the risk of cancer.

Professor Chris Elliott, who led the UK government's food systems review following the 2013 horsemeat scandal, urged the government to enforce a ban on the chemicals, which are used as a preservative.

Earlier this year, France’s health agency ANSES confirmed a link between nitrites and nitrates in ham and charcuterie and the development of colorectal cancer - otherwise known as bowel cancer.

The French government has since begun planning the reduction or phasing out of nitrites from processed meats in the country.

Elliott, along with colleagues from Queen’s University Belfast, conducted a pork meat consumption study on mice over eight weeks.

The mice were given a diet consisting of 15 per cent of either nitrite-free pork, nitrate-free sausage, or nitrite-containing sausage in the form of a frankfurter.

The mice were compared against a control group, which was fed a diet consisting entirely of chow - a balanced diet consisting mainly of cereals.

Mice eating the nitrite-containing frankfurters were found to have 53 per cent more gastrointestinal tumours than the control group.

The study authors noted that while 15 per cent nitrate-pork in the diet was “a relatively high intake of processed meat,” all previous preclinical trials had used a minimum of 50 per cent processed meat in the diet.

“It clearly demonstrates that lower dietary quantities can exacerbate the disease,” they wrote.

‘Very real risk to public health’

Colorectal cancer is one of the most prevalent cancers across Europe, and one of the leading causes of death.

Many health bodies already advise lowering the risk of developing this cancer by eating a healthy diet, and avoiding processed meat and red meat.

The UK’s NHS recommends that anyone who eats more than 90g of red or processed meat a day should cut down to 70g, which could help to reduce the risk of bowel cancer.

Professor Chris Elliott called on the UK government to ban the use of nitrites “as they have done already in France”.

“The results of this new study make the cancer risk associated with nitrite-cured meat even clearer. The everyday consumption of nitrite-containing bacon and ham poses a very real risk to public health,” he said.

Dr Brian Green, another of the report authors, said: “The results from our study clearly show that not all processed meats carry the same risk of cancer and that the consumption of nitrite-containing processed meat exacerbates the development of cancerous tumours”.