Researchers studying nitrites in bacon and other meats

May 2, 2012

As with many concerned consumers, a team of University of Oklahoma researchers wondered if the green color sometimes seen in bacon is, in fact, harmful to human health. Recently, these OU scientists took an important first step in answering this question by determining the structure of the green pigment responsible for this 'nitrite burn.'

The research team led by George Richter-Addo and Jun Yi, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the OU College of Arts and Sciences, discovered that the green pigment seen in nitrite-cured bacon and other meats is due to an unusual chemical reaction of nitrites with the meat protein myoglobin. But more research is needed on the effects of 'nitrite burn,' particularly on the physiological function of myoglobin and other proteins.

"No one really knows if 'nitrite burn' is bad for you or not because there is so little information about the physiological effects on humans," remarks Richter-Addo. "But, we have discovered that a simple chemical process, which inhibits the flow of oxygen in the blood and degrades the hemoglobin, causes the blood to turn from red to green. Identifying the degraded blood components allowed us to characterize the related green seen in bacon and other meats."

For centuries, nitrites have been used as a preservative to keep meats fresh, but very little is known about the harmful effects of nitrites on the body. While nitrites give meat its fresh color, add flavor and kill toxic bacteria, when used improperly, nitrites create cancer-causing chemicals. Naturally, consumers are concerned with the discoloration seen in bacon—a concern OU researchers share, says Richter-Addo.

He and his team will continue to look for answers through research to determine if the discoloration of bacon and other meats, such as chicken, beef and pork, is an indication of a cancer-causing component. In the future, the OU research group will collaborate with agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to study nitrites in plants and vegetables.

"This is not research we would have pursued if we were any other place," states Richter-Addo. "The OU academic research environment encourages creative activity, so our research faculty and students can look at a problem from a fresh perspective. In this case, the chemistry point-of-view—a very different approach from that taken by researchers in the field of agriculture—led to an important step in solving this problem."

Explore further: Excessive cured meat consumption increases risk of hospital readmissions for COPD patients

Related Stories

Excessive cured meat consumption increases risk of hospital readmissions for COPD patients

March 8, 2012
An excessive intake of cured meats, such as salami, chorizo and bacon, can increase readmission to hospital for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to a study by Spanish researchers from the ...

Recommended for you

High-fat diet in pregnancy can cause mental health problems in offspring

July 21, 2017
A high-fat diet not only creates health problems for expectant mothers, but new research in an animal model suggests it alters the development of the brain and endocrine system of their offspring and has a long-term impact ...

To combat teen smoking, health experts recommend R ratings for movies that depict tobacco use

July 21, 2017
Public health experts have an unusual suggestion for reducing teen smoking: Give just about any movie that depicts tobacco use an automatic R rating.

Opioids and obesity, not 'despair deaths,' raising mortality rates for white Americans

July 20, 2017
Drug-related deaths among middle-aged white men increased more than 25-fold between 1980 and 2014, with the bulk of that spike occurring since the mid-1990s when addictive prescription opioids became broadly available, according ...

Aging Americans enjoy longer life, better health when avoiding three risky behaviors

July 20, 2017
We've heard it before from our doctors and other health experts: Keep your weight down, don't smoke and cut back on the alcohol if you want to live longer.

Parents have critical role in preventing teen drinking

July 20, 2017
Fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol but more needs to be done to curb the drinking habits of Australian school students, based on the findings of the latest study by Adelaide researchers.

Fresh fish oil lowers diabetes risk in rat offspring

July 19, 2017
Fresh fish oil given to overweight pregnant rats prevented their offspring from developing a major diabetes risk factor, Auckland researchers have found.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.