We have long thought about the curing with nitrates/nitrites issue for our smoked meats - i.e. mainly bacon and ham. There are conflicting opinions on the degree to which nitrates present a potential health risk, including varying views on whether the nitrates used to smoke meats present any more of a problem than the naturally-occurring nitrates in vegetables like celery, spinach and beets. Some sources are now even claiming that nitrites provide health benefits.
Click here to read an excellent article on nitrates and nitrites in preserved meats, including information on why they are used, the potential health issues and the current status of alternatives, published by the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada.
So, what to do.... We have talked to half a dozen or so butchers, the majority of whom do not want to consider curing meat without nitrates due to possible health risks associated with microbial growth during the curing and smoking process. Then there's also the flavour component. We have had customers try nitrate-free products and comment that they don't like the flavour as much.
So taking into account the fact that we regularly receive comments from customers about how much they LOVE our bacon and ham products (our butcher does a great job of curing and smoking the old-fashioned way), the conflicting science and opinions on nitrates/nitrites and the lack of well-tested alternatives, we have decided to stay where we are at, with a butcher who does use nitrates/nitrites. We basically feel like it is too a good a thing with respect to flavour and we have had so few customers express concern over the use of a very low level of nitrates, that we will stay where we are at and continue to re-evaluate should sound alternatives become available.