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Meat: Is it Liver Friendly?

Living with chronic liver disease means working to preserve and maintain the health of your liver. Learn how lifestyle adjustments, such as limiting your intake of processed meat, can help reduce the risk of further damaging your liver.

For centuries, meat has been preserved with salt. Near the turn of the century, it was determined that nitrate, present in some salt, was responsible for producing the pink color and distinctive flavor preferred by consumers. Later, industry experts determined that the effect on meat color only occurred when nitrate chemically changed to nitrite via bacterial action during processing and storage. The majority of processed meats, including bacon, deli meat (ham, turkey, salami and pepperoni), breakfast sausage, hot dogs or even canned soup with meat, are prepared with the preservative sodium nitrite. In fact, you can find sodium nitrite in nearly every packaged meat product imaginable.

Meat processors use sodium nitrite because it:

·    prevents the growth of bacteria causing botulism poisoning
·    stabilizes the red color in cured meat
·    retards development of rancidity, off-odors and off-flavors during storage
·    develops cured meat flavor by preserving spices, smoke, etc.

Reasons for Concern
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 1972 report, GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) Food Ingredients: Nitrates and Nitrites (Including Nitrosamines), the fatal dose of sodium nitrite is in the range of 22 to 23 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Lower doses of sodium nitrite, particularly in infants, have caused acute methemoglobinemia (when hemoglobin loses its ability to carry oxygen) after consumption. While acute toxicity from nitrite is rare, it is not unheard of.

The clinical signs of acute nitrate/nitrite toxicity include bluish or dusky skin, lethargy, profuse sweating and mental confusion. Most individuals could never fathom such a large dose, but this evidence confirms sodium nitrite possesses some level of toxicity. Since people with chronic liver disease are more susceptible to toxin exposure, it is best for these individuals to choose fresh meats as opposed to processed ones.

Cancer Causing Preservative

The potential to develop liver cancer is an undesirable consequence of living with chronic liver disease. For a person with these concerns, it doesn’t make sense to consume an ingredient known to cause cancer.

Since the 1970s, nitrosamines have been implicated in many studies to be carcinogenic. Under certain conditions not yet fully understood, the natural products of protein breakdown (amines) can combine with nitrites to form compounds known as nitrosamines. When combined with amines, nitrites subjected to intense heat readily form n-nitrosamines. The heat used in frying bacon makes it the most vulnerable meat to developing n-nitrosamines.

Reducing the Impact

In addition to avoiding or minimizing consumption of processed meats, there is another way to reduce sodium nitrite’s negative impact. In the 1970s, it was discovered that the antioxidant ascorbic acid (vitamin C) inhibits nitrosamine formation. Consequently, the addition of ascorbic acid is now required in the production of some cured meats in the United States. Many manufacturers use erythorbic acid, a cheaper version of ascorbic acid. Another antioxidant, alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E), is also added to some cured meats to inhibit nitrosamine formation. As a result of these strategies, there are now significantly lower levels of nitrosamines in fried bacon and other cured meats.

While meat manufacturers will only add a minimal amount of antioxidants to inhibit nitrosamine formation, knowledgeable consumers can build on this information. Taking antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium and milk thistle, prior to eating any processed meat is a powerful means of self-protection. The fact that antioxidants play a role in toxin reduction and cancer prevention well beyond the natural healthcare industry is something that every person with chronic liver disease deserves to know.


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www.cspinet.org, CSPI’s Guide to Food Additives, Center for Science in the Public Interest, 2006.

www.extension.umn.edu, Nitrite in Meat, Richard J. Epley, Paul B. Addis, Joesph J. Warhhesen, Regents of University of Minnesota, 2006.

www.food.oregonstate.edu, Nitrate and Nitrite in Foods, Oregon State University, October, 2006.

www.lpi.oregonstate.edu, Nitrosamines and Cancer, Richard A. Scanlan, PhD, The Linus Pauling Institute, 2006.

www.newstarget.com, The real reason why processed meats are so dangerous to your health, Mike Adams, NewsTarget Network, 2005.

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About the Author

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)®

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM is a long time advocate of integrating perspectives on health. With a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester and a Master's degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Five Branches Institute, Nicole has been a licensed acupuncturist since 2000. She has gathered acupuncture licenses in the states of California and New York, is a certified specialist with the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, has earned diplomat status with the National Commission of Chinese and Oriental Medicine in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology and is a member of the Society for Integrative Oncology. In addition to her acupuncture practice that focuses on stress and pain relief, digestion, immunity and oncology, Nicole contributes to the integration of healthcare by writing articles for professional massage therapists and people living with liver disease.

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