A comprehensive analyses of recent scientific studies has led the lead French health agency to confirm that nitrite food additives in processed meat products like bacon, ham and sausage increase the risk of colon cancer.* While they occur naturally in the soil and are found in groundwater, nitrates and nitrites** are preservative salts intentionally added to processed and cured meats to extend shelf life, maintain flavor and color, and because of their antimicrobial properties, to limit the development of bacteria in the food.
The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) analyzed the scientific cancer studies that have been published since the reference work of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA, 2017) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, 2018). It confirms that there is an association between the risk of colorectal cancer and exposure to nitrites and/or nitrates, whether they are ingested via the consumption of processed meat or drinking water. The higher the exposure to these compounds, the greater the risk of colorectal cancer in the population. ANSES stated “more than half of exposure to nitrites comes from the consumption of [processed meat products], because of the additives used in preparing it”.
*A 2015 World Health Organization report classified processed meat as carcinogenic because curing — by adding nitrates or nitrites or by smoking — can lead to the formation of potentially cancer-causing chemicals. The warning applied to all processed meats, from the bacon eaten in large quantities in the US and Britain, to Italian salami, Spanish chorizo, German bratwurst and French charcuterie.
**Nitrites form nitrates when combined with oxygen.
Reference: French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) report, Reducing dietary exposure to nitrites and nitrates, July, 2022. Overview.