What is "Nitrite-Free" Ham?

The growing number of manufacturers using “Nitrite Free” as an advertising slogan to sell hams and bacon is one of my biggest bugbears of late. Okay, it may not be up there with the “cigarettes are good for your health” adverts of a few decades ago but ham is close to my heart and I hate the fact that marketers can be so disingenuous. So what’s the fuss?

There has been much discussion in the press in recent years about the possible adverse health effects of nitrites and nitrates. Our position is that whilst these preservatives (which have been in use since Roman times) are harmful when taken in large quantities, there can still be a place for cured meats in a sensible and varied diet. There are strict controls on how much nitrate or nitrite can be added to foods, and we are scrupulously careful to ensure that we don’t use a scrap more than is necessary.

The simple fact is that the attractive pink colour of hams is due to nitrites. A ham without nitrites, when cooked, would have the dull grey-brown colour of cooked pork. More importantly, nitrites are a vital part of our defence against some of the most dangerous food poisining bacteria that can cause serious problems such as botulism. Nitrite-free ham or bacon is little more than salty pork.

So, how can some producers claim to offer hams and bacon with “no added nitrites”?  The trick they employ is to use celery (famously amost entirely water), which which can be grown with a generous dose of fertilizer ( that’s nitrate!!) in the water – and hey presto! you have a “natural” ingredient absolutely bursting with nitrate – about 1,000 parts per million in the fresh celery. The celery can then be juiced, or dried out and ground up, and added to the meat during curing, and appears on the label with the innocent description of as “celery” or more likely as “natural flavouring”, when really it’s just a way of sneaking the nitrates in through the back door. With Dukeshill, what you see on the label is what you get!