Here's what fireworks, chemical fertilizers, and frankfurters have in common: They all contain nitrogen compounds. Sodium nitrates, which are used as a preservative in standard hot dogs, have inspired a decades-long scientific debate over their possible health risks to humans. Perhaps you'd like to keep tabs on how much nitrate is in the hot dogs you're scarfing this summer. Unfortunately, you can't.
Here's the thing: Even uncured, “nitrate-free” meats contain healthy doses of nitrates. So do many raw vegetables and most municipal water supplies. In fact, "natural" meats can contain even more nitrite than your standard heavily-processed bacon strips and hot dogs. A recent report in The New York Times pointed to a study that found “natural hot dogs had anywhere from one-half to 10 times the amount of nitrates that conventional hot dogs contained"—usually courtesy of naturally occurring nitrates in celery. (Celery juice is often used in the meat.)
Natural products are required to indicate on the label that they contain nitrate or nitrite. But as the Times’ William Neuman reports,
The current rules bizarrely require products that derive the preservatives from natural sources to prominently place the words “Uncured” and “No nitrates or nitrites added” on the label even though they are cured and do contain the chemicals.
Now the USDA is considering long-overdue changes to its labeling requirements. Over the last 20 years, research has upended our understanding of nitrates as a toxic, synthetic chemical, write Nathan S. Bryan and Joseph Loscalzo in Nitrite and Nitrate in Human Health and Disease. Still, scientists and regulators alike have not adequately addressed its health risks, naturally-occurring or otherwise.
The confusion here hints at a deeper issue with food labeling. Competing claims about foods—whether "all-natural," "trans-fat free," or "fat-free"—can give the ingredients we eat a false halo of health. Sure, your salty, fatty tube of meat may be nitrate-free. Whether it's good for you is another question entirely. Under our current labeling system, it's anyone's guess.