Dan Murphy: Evil Nitrite – The Sequel

July 25, 2018 10:06 AM
After some years in the background, the (allegedly) harmful impact of the nitrite used in curing processed meats is back on the front burner — this time as the supposed cause of mania.

Maybe those Jack Links Jerky ads are accurate.

You know, the “Runnin’ with Sasquatch” commercials from Minneapolis-based ad agency Carmichael Lynch that proclaim, “You’re either running with Sasquatch, or you’re running from Sasquatch,” implying that those who share the animalistic frenzy of a rampaging Bigfoot are the ones munching on a hunk of beef jerky.

As opposed to the effeminate, bird-watching wimp who attempts to flee from Sasquatch — without success, of course.

The connection between the “raw energy of youth culture,” as the brand’s ad gurus like to style their commercials’ theme, and the consumption of beef jerky is the use of nitrites added to dried and processed meats as a curing agent. According to a recent study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, eating nitrated dry-cured meat was “strongly and independently associated with mania.”

Maybe not the berserk behavior attributed to the fictional Sasquatch; more like the problematic and often uncontrollable nervous energy that characterizes such mental health conditions as manic-depressive syndrome and bipolar disorders.

Based on the media overreaction to this study, it appears that after a hiatus of more than a decade, nitrates/nitrites are back in the spotlight as yet another bad boy specifically linked to meat consumption.

The Real Deal on Nitrates
After the Molecular Psychiatry report was published, its assertions were quickly translated into headlines such as this one on the website, Independent Engineering: “Study Links Eating Processed Meat to Mental Illness.”

Or this one, from The Atlantic magazine: “The Frightening Link Between Beef Jerky and Bipolar Mania.”

Here’s the background on how such attention grabbers came about: The study’s authors analyzed dietary recollections from a thousand adults, both patients diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and a control group. They discovered that the psychiatric patients were three-and-a-half times more likely to be associated with “a history of eating nitrated dry cured meat.”

As always in dietary studies, the key word is “associated.” Not causation, but association.

Tough to tell from the study data whether patients suffering from manic-depressive episodes or other, more serious disorders, were attracted to the convenience and/or flavor of jerky or meat snacks, or whether the consumption of such products then triggered, or exacerbated, an innate predisposition to such conditions.

But the demonization of nitrites as triggers for psychiatric disorders is reminiscent of the decades-earlier debate — since debunked — that engulfed the processed meat industry, when sodium nitrite was deemed responsible for causing an increased risk of gastrointestinal cancer in adults and methemoglobinemia in infants, a condition affecting the ability of ferric iron in hemoglobin to bind oxygen in the bloodstream.

Although why a baby would be overdosing on jerky or meat snacks has never been addressed.

Despite all the bad publicity nitrates receive, food-derived nitrates might actually be healthful dietary components. And in any discussion of the impact of nitrates, which are converted into nitrites in the body by digestive bacteria, it’s important to recognize that beef jerky or dried meats are hardly the primary source for the compound.

According to a 2009 literature review by Michigan State University researchers published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 80% of dietary nitrates are derived from plant-based sources: vegetables and fruits. Moreover, dietary nitrates and nitrites “may contribute [a] blood pressure-lowering effect,” that study’s authors noted.

In fact, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is very high in nitrates, some five times the World Health Organization's Acceptable Daily Intake level for adults. As the Michigan State researchers noted, “These data call into question the rationale for recommendations to limit nitrate and nitrite consumption from plant foods; a comprehensive reevaluation of the health effects of food sources of nitrates and nitrites is appropriate.”

Yeah, one that won’t be forthcoming from the jerky-makes-you-manic people, that’s for sure.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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