Bacon Woes

Should we be concerned about nitrites or nitrates in bacon?  Meat retailers are experiencing a downturn in demand for bacon due to resistance from people who are concerned about health risks of eating meat.  Let’s examine this.

The plant based lobby is working hard to discredit animal based foods despite our ancestors regularly eating meat or fish, often as the only food consumed.  The dominance of these animal and fish based diets over thousands of years have been confirmed by isotope testing of human remains (Richard’s M.P. et al. 2009) and are still the basis of a number of traditional diets for groups such as the Masai, Inuit, Hadza and Tokelau Islanders.  These groups, eating traditional diets, do not apparently suffer from the cancers common amongst people eating a modern diet.  It is revealing to note that as these people migrate to a more western diet, their health declines.  The Australian aborigines and Pima Indians of Arizona are well documented examples of this change from predominantly meat based diets to western diets and their resulting health issues.

In 1906-12, American doctor and anthropologist, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, lived with the Inuit in Northern Canada for about 5 years eating their nearly 100% animal based diet of fish, caribou, whale, seal and other smaller animals without any significant health issues.  He recorded their good health and longevity and noted in his diaries and books that he very rarely observed any cancer. 

Dietary comparison is difficult due to the number of confounding factors.  For example, vegetarians and vegans are often very particular about what they eat meaning that a study finding benefits from their diet may be unable to establish if the benefit came from eating vegetables or from avoiding sugar, alcohol, processed foods or refined grains.  In addition, meat eaters as a group often include people who are less concerned about their diet, seldom exercise, consume alcohol frequently and eat lots of processed food, all of which can contribute to poor health.

Colon cancer is sometimes linked to meat consumption and there are studies about this.  However, a UK study (Tim Key, 2022) examined data on 63,550 men and women aged 20 to 89 recruited throughout the UK during the 1990s. They obtained the cancer incidence figures from national cancer registries.  They concluded: “Within the study, the incidence of all cancers combined was lower (11%) among vegetarians than among meat eaters, but the incidence of colorectal cancer was higher in vegetarians (39%) than in meat eaters.

One of the concerns raised about eating bacon is the presence of Nitrates and Nitrites initially present in the meat and added for the curing process, to preserve the meat, extend the shelf life, and to keep it looking red and delicious.  They suppress the bacteria that causes Botulism in meat and, without them, the meat can look grey and unappealing.

Nitrates (NO3) are relatively stable and, therefore, in small quantities they are unlikely to change and cause harm, however bacteria and enzymes in the mouth will convert them to nitrites.  The nitrites are then converted by stomach acid to Nitric Oxide (NO).  This is beneficial.

Nitrites (NO2) which come into contact with protein are converted to nitric oxide which is very beneficial for the body and is a natural anti-bacterial.  This helps lower blood pressure, helps people with angina, and relaxes artery walls, assisting with blood circulation and is the active compound in Viagra. Nitrites are not stable and in the 1970’s it was suggested that heating them can create Nitrosamines which can be carcinogenic.  The good news is that these nitrosamines are heat-labile, ie: altered or destroyed by high heat (Am J Clin Nutr. – 2009). 

Curiously people are less concerned about nitrates and nitrites in vegetables, which is where 80% of the ingested nitrates and nitrites come from, according to the above study.  Beetroot greens and juice are touted as health foods because of the abundant nitrites which convert into Nitric Oxide when eaten.  Celery for example, is very high in nitrites, can be ground into a powder and used as a replacement preservative in processed meats.  When this is done the meat, must by (US) law, be labelled as “uncured”.

There is no difference in the action of the nitrites regardless of the source.  The craziness is that (in USA) when the nitrite comes from sodium (or potassium) nitrite, it’s regulated (allowable levels vary by product). There are no limits for nitrite from celery powder, which means that bacon labeled as “uncured” may actually contain higher levels of nitrites.  It turns out that almost all meat labelled “uncured” has been treated with vegetable based nitrites.

Nitrites are also present in drinking water and naturally occur in saliva, where they function as an anti-bacterial with, for example, the ability to kill salmonella.  Nitrite in saliva increases gastric mucosal blood flow and mucus thickness helping digestion.  This action removes toxins, and helps with acid buffering by supporting bicarbonate production downstream of the stomach.

The summary of one study claimed: “These results indicate that dietary nitrate may serve important gastro-protective functions”.

In a study (N P Sen, et al. 1980) the nitrosamine levels detected in both cured and uncured meat products (both cooked and uncooked) were very low and were degraded and destroyed by cooking at high heat and, therefore, would not be expected to occur in fried foods at significant levels.

Like most dietary substances there are upper limits.  Excess nitrate (NO3) which has no taste or smell, can affect how our blood carries oxygen. Nitrates can turn hemoglobin (the protein in blood that carries oxygen) into methemoglobin . High levels can turn skin to a bluish or gray color and cause more serious health effects like weakness, excess heart rate, fatigue, and dizziness.  This is sometimes referred to as “blue baby syndrome” as babies are particularly vulnerable.  In some US farm areas warnings are issued when nitrate levels get too high in drinking water.

In New Zealand, if nitrate (NO3) levels in drinking water exceed 50 mg/L, then it must be treated. Boiling or disinfectant has zero impact on this.  Generally only private bore water would have this problem with rain water unlikely to be affected and community supply water regularly tested for this.

One study (Dubrow et al. 2010) examined 545,000 participants of which 585 were diagnosed with Glioma, (Brain Tumors).  They were testing the hypothesis that Nitrosamines derived from dietary Nitrites (NO2) elevated the risk of brain tumors.  Their conclusions stated:

We found no significant trends in glioma risk for consumption of processed or red meat, nitrate, or vitamin C or E. We found significant positive (not good) trends for nitrite intake from plant sources and, unexpectedly, for fruit and vegetable intake.  Further work is needed on early life diet, adult intake of nitrite from plant sources, and adult intake of fruit and vegetables in relation to adult glioma risk”.   “We observed an unexpected finding of increasing glioma risk with increasing intake of fruit and vegetables. ~~~ which may be due to pesticide residues consumed with fruit and vegetables

What about the fat in bacon?  The fats in bacon are about 50% monounsaturated and a large part of those is oleic acid.   This is the same fatty acid present in olive oil and is generally considered “heart-healthy”.  The remaining fat in bacon is 40% saturated and 10% polyunsaturated, accompanied by some cholesterol.  Dietary cholesterol was a concern in the past, but scientists now agree that it has very minor effects on cholesterol levels in your blood, while the Sydney Diet Health study showed us that saturated fat is healthy.

Maybe bacon does not need to be avoided?

Seek professional medical advice before making dietary changes, particularly if you have underlying health problems.

Read my blog at “www.takebackyrhealth.com

Find my book at   bit.ly/3KJwedY

Good health,  George Elder, Diet Researcher, Dip. Nutrition.

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The Blue Zones?

In 2000, Micheal Poulain and Giovanni Mario Pes documented a group of locations around the world where there was an abundance of people who lived to be over 100 years old.  These areas were called “The Blue Zones” and included:

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  • Ikaria, Greece; (sometimes spelt Icaria)
  • Okinawa, Japan;
  • Ogliastra Region, Sardinia;
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.
  • Loma Linda, California, USA

It was suggested that a number of factors led to the longer life of people who lived there, including regular exercise, having social circles that reinforced healthy behaviors,  taking time to de-stress, being very family orientated and part of a community.  There was also a dietary element where it was believed that their approach to diet had a very significant impact on their longevity.

Some groups interested in diet have seem similarities between their dietary beliefs and the documented diet of blue zone inhabitants, often using this information to support their ideas and to promote their diet as healthier.  Despite these areas being very geographically and separate from each other and eating quite different diets, these dietary ideas have become blue zone folklore?

Here are some suggested ideas from a recent book titled “The Blue Zones Solution” by Dan Buettner:

  • Stop eating when your stomach is 80 percent full to avoid weight gain.
  • Eat the smallest meal of the day in the late afternoon or evening.
  • Eat mostly plants, especially beans. And eat meat rarely, in small portions of 3 to 4 ounces. Blue Zoners eat portions this size just five times a month, on average.
  • Drink alcohol moderately and regularly, i.e. 1-2 glasses a day.

Some of this advice seems very sensible but we must be very careful when trying to apply what seems to work in one place and time to something happening in another place or time.  For example:

  • Many people living in Northern Europe drink a lot of cows milk and have done so for generations, however most Asians can not tolerate cows milk well due to a lactose intolerance which can make them sick when they consume it.
  • Europeans traveling into malaria infested areas of the World must take special precautions against getting bitten by the anopheles mosquito as they can suffer hugely and die from this disease if caught, while some locals appear to be almost immune from this.
  • Over the years diets change and the diet that sustained a centenarian in the growing and middle age years may be very different from what we see today, which could confound research.  In my own case my family ate lots of delicious meat stews, and porridge as I grew up but we very seldom eat these today.  We also had very limited fruit varieties and fast food was non-existent. 

Another aspect of the blue zones which has been questioned is the validity of the research done.  Mary Ruddick, a renowned nutritionist is married to a Greek and has lived on the island of Ikaria.  She was puzzled by the lack of recognition of the amount of goat meat eaten by the islanders and the suggestion that potatoes was a mainstay of their diet.  In her view the islanders eat goat meat almost daily and potatoes are not a local crop due to the poor soils.  They were introduced some years ago as part of the adoption of more western ways of eating and were never part of traditional diets.  Her suggestion about why goat meat is not recognized is that the questionnaires asked about “red” meat consumption and this to an Ikaria inhabitant translates to beef, which is rarely eaten.  Mary shares her view on this here:

Another blue zone diet claim is that a mainstay of the Okinawa diet is sweet potatoes.  During World War II these people were forced to kill and eat most of the pigs on their islands and as a result made a switch to much more reliance on sweet potatoes.  The diet which centenarians ate over the years was once heavily pork based and this has changed significantly over time.  Okinawa’s people are no longer in the top group.  For more information about this diet confusion, take a look at the post by Angela Stanton in the link below

Another approach in dietary / longevity research is to blame genetics for some of the health problems of today. Any review of non-communicable diseases such as Type-2 Diabetes, Obesity, Macular Degeneration, Kidney Disease, Asthma, Depression, Alzheimer’s Disease, Heart disease or Cancer reveals skyrocketing levels which have risen dramatically since the 1900’s when most of these were rare. Is it possible that some individuals have obesity genes which are turned on or turned off by the poor western diet of high sugar, refined grains and seed oils.

Genetics clearly has an impact in setting different levels of susceptibility to diseases in individuals. For a great example of how genes work, take a look at the honey bee. The queen bee and the worker bee have identical genes, but the Queen is isolated and fed royal jelly with the result being development of the only fertile female egg laying machine in the hive. Genes can clearly be turned off and turned on by external factors such as different foods.

Different population groups around the world, have responded to the western diet in different ways. Some groups have a much less healthy response to the the impact of the western diet than others. For example, the Pima Indians in Arizona are the most obese group in USA and African Americans are more susceptible to Type-2 Diabetes than people of Caucasian origin. These differences may be due to natural selection that has occurred from the impact of different major impacts on the ancestors of the group. Dr. Andrew Jenkinson in his fascinating book “Why We Eat (To Much), covers this in some detail. For example, he suggests that the susceptibility of Pacific Islanders to obesity may come from their past long sea migrations where only those who had the ability to survive these journeys with little or no food, survived to become their ancestors.

As always, for more diet and health information, take a look at my book

“Take Back Your Health”, by George Elder,  available as an ebook or paperback on Amazon.

Book Link: https://amzn.to/3uiehfv

Blog link,  www.takebackyrhealth.com

Red Meat Risk for Health

The “so-called” experts on diet and health seem to be once again twisting the numbers to achieve some alternative gains at the expense of public health. This has been highlighted by Kevin White in the UK publication “The Grocer”.

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There is a group led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, (IHME) at the University of Washington, Seattle (USA), that publish a paper each year which is titled The Global Burden of Disease (GBD). They recently published a paper in The Lancet, which suggested that deaths from eating red meat around the world had risen

  • from 25,000 in 2017
  • to 896,000 in 2019.

This would be a 36-fold (3,484%) increase in the threat to human health from eating meat in two years. These same authors stated in 2017 that red meat was the least important of 15 dietary risk factors studied.

Understandably this has been challenged by nutrition scientists who have requested that the group produce the evidence for this increase. The claim by GBD is puzzling when we realize that after a “forensic examination” of the data and its assumptions by the nutrition scientists – which also includes globally-recognized meat expert professor Frederic Leroy of Vrije Universiteit in Brussels – it was then compared to a collection of global meta-analyses looking at the relationship between eating red meat and human ill health and deaths. The scientists concluded they could “find no relationship” between the meta-analyses and the GBD data.

A big problem with junk science like this is that it is picked up and published and then used as justification for policies. For example:

This “statistic” has been used as part of the justification for a reduction in red meat consumption as published in the “Eat Lancet Diet” and is referenced in major UK policy documents – including Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy. It has also been referenced in publications by the UN Food System Summit, and the EU’s Farm To Fork Strategy. According to an article in “Farming Independent”, by Claire McCormack, Since publication, GBD 2019 has been cited by 635 documents, including 351 scientific papers and nine policy documents such as the UK’s National Food Strategy.

Here is how the Global Burden of Disease study is described on their website:-

The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study is the most comprehensive worldwide observational epidemiological study to date. Led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Seattle (USA) the GBD study offers a powerful resource to understand the changing health challenges facing people across the world in the 21st century.

Unfortunately a failure to provide the evidence for this will severely undermine the GBD reporting validity and raise serious ethical questions about the motivation of this group and their supporters.

It is very unlikely that a rise of over 3000% in 2 years is even possible, let alone likely.

The great danger of people taking this “junk evidence” seriously Is that it may lead to policies and activities that further erode the understanding of the critical nature of animal food for human health.

To their credit, I understand that the Lancet Publication has also requested evidence to support the GBD claims.

Animal foods are very important for world wide diets because of their high nutrient density. Vitamin K2 for calcium management and vitamin B12 only come from animal foods. Both are critical for reducing heart disease risk. Many people are iron, zinc and folate deficient which is exacerbated by the low bio-availability of these in plant foods. These are much more bio-available in animal foods.

Most plant foods also have some form of anti-nutrient which binds up the minerals in your meal and removes them from your body leaving you under-nourished. For example, wheat flour binds up zinc and iron in your meal so you get less of these essential mineral nutrients from your meal. It is thought that this binding action could be a major factor in the cause of so much poor health in the longer term vegan community.

The very high levels of Omega-6 fats from heavy consumption of vegetable/seed oils and the very low levels of Omega-3 fats is another major concern. Enlightened heath experts recommend a ratio (Omega-6:Omega-3) of these at about 4:1 or less, based on historical levels before the introduction of industrial seed oils to the diet.

As always, if you want to understand how to improve your health with your diet, take a look at my book – “Take Back Your Health”, by George Elder for sale on Amazon.com or available from the Selwyn District Library, in New Zealand.

www.takebackyrhealth.com

Best of health to you, George Elder.