Tuesday, November 24, 2009

To Cure or not to Cure...The Truth Uncovered

When placing a pork order with us, we like to offer our customers the opportunity to have their pork custom butchered. For many of our customers, it is the first time they have had the chance to decide how their meat is processed. Often we will aid by asking a questions like,

Would you like your hams and bacon cured/smoked or fresh?
Do you want breakfast sausage or ground pork?
Do you prefer loin roasts or pork chops?

Once in a while customers will ask for my opinion on cured meats. Or more commonly if our meats are cured “naturally without nitrites”. In an effort to provide the healthiest, highest quality, and most delicious foods possible, we have done a fair amount of homework regarding cured meats and naturally cured meats. We have spoken with numerous butchers, visited smokehouses (curing facilities), and read through a fair amount of material. To our surprise, we found that health conscious consumers have once again been lied to and mislead. (Don’t ask me why I am surprised at this point. I suppose I am too trusting.)

At this point I would like to offer a disclaimer that I am not a food expert, doctor, nutritionist etc… I am a farmer who is trying to simplify the confusing information out there. What I present here is accurate to the best of my knowledge. Each side of the spectrum puts forth information to convince that their way is the right way. In studying this I too may have been mislead. Please research this for yourself and form your own conclusion.

Cured meats by definition contain some kind of curing agent like salts. When you read “salts” don’t assume sodium chloride (table salt). The most common curing salt used today is sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite is what gives bacon and ham its pink color even after it has been cooked. It is used to prevent the growth of bacteria like Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism. It also gives bacon and ham that distinct flavor that so many people love. The health concern with sodium nitrite is that when cured meats are exposed to high temperatures like those reached when grilling, that nitrosamines form. Nitrosamines are a carcinogen and can therefore be linked to causing cancer.

The meat industry counters with claims that the studies connecting cured meats to causing cancer were conducted during the 1970’s and that since then they have reduced the amount of sodium nitrite in meats to 10% of the amounts used in the 70’s. They claim that they have also added erythorbate and ascorbate to their curing solution which inhibit production of nitrosamines and deplete any residual nitrite.

Well what about “Nitrite Free”, “No Nitrite Added”, “Naturally Cured”, or “Preservative Free” meats? (If you have high blood pressure, don’t read any further. I don’t want to be responsible for killing you off!) Products labeled with the claims above all contain “natural nitrates” which by themselves are harmless. In fact, these “natural nitrates” are derived from sugar cane, vegetables, and sea salt. Celery is one of the most common vegetables used as its juice naturally contains high levels of nitrates. There are some farms that intentionally add extra nitrates to the soil so that when the celery or sugar cane is harvested for “natural curing” that it will have even higher levels of nitrates than would normally occur. When this “natural nitrate” is added to the meat, bacteria reduce it to nitrite! While it hasn’t been “added”, the nitrite is present in every way! Since the products are “natural” they are not considered “preservatives” and do not need to be labeled as such. The newly formed nitrites are just as capable of forming into nitrosamines when exposed to high heat. In fact, I am left wondering if the “naturally cured” meat isn’t more harmful as it doesn’t have the erythorbate and ascorbate that supposedly inhibits the formation of nitrosamines! Additionally there is no regulation overseeing the amount of nitrates added to the cured meats like there is when sodium nitrite is used.  The next time you are at the grocery store and reach for those “nitrite free” hot dogs, bologna, ham, bacon etc… and are willing to pay double the price, you may want to think twice.

In our opinion, there is no such thing as a cured meat that is free of nitrates/nitrites!

I recently met up with a butcher who after much begging and arm twisting tried an experiment for me. We injected a ham with a simple brine solution (table salt and water) and then smoked it. We got it back last weekend and cooked up for our Sunday dinner. As usual we invited our guinea pigs sister and her family over for dinner. We slow cooked the pork in the Crockpot and the house smelled wonderful! Just like a good ham. Eating it was different. Not bad, just different. It tasted like ham but looked like a roast. It had the texture of a roast as well. My only regret it that I didn’t have one of my own pigs available to use. The meat was a little mushy which is typical of confinement raised pigs. I plan to try it again with one of my own pigs so that I can make a fair judgment call. We will try smoking bacon the same way and see how that turns out. As it was, everybody thought it was good, but the majority preferred a regular pork roast. Again this may be because we are spoiled on the quality of our own pigs.

As it stands we will continue to let our customers choose how they prefer their pork. The butcher we currently use does a fantastic job and uses gourmet quality recipes when curing the hams and bacon and mixing sausage. The curing solution uses sodium nitrite with the erythorbate and ascorbate as well as brown sugar.  The result is the best tasting bacon and ham we have ever tasted. That being said, a pork roast (alternative to cured ham) is my favorite dinner. I prefer to have a fresh roast slow cooked with diced onions. Our fresh side (uncured bacon) is also delicious and a nice change from bacon.  We like to cook it up and serve it on sandwiches just like BLTs.  The fresh side tastes a little like pork rinds.  Yum!  I like to taste the premium quality of the pork that we have worked so hard to produce by feeding the pigs only the highest quality grasses, alfalfa, grain, fruits and vegetables.  Our pork is loaded with flavor something the store bough pork is missing.  So you will not miss out on anything should you decide to have your pork processed without curing. 

UPDATE: We are making progress.  All of our sausages and breakfast sausage are now  MSG, BHA, and BHT free.


Anonymous said...

I know Niman Ranch sells a precooked uncured ham which is very popular. It would be great if you, a local company could provide something like that!

Christiansen's Hog Heaven said...

A company the size of Niman Ranch can easily offer specialty products like this. For a small farm it would add a lot to our overhead and we would have to raise our prices likely to those of Niman Ranch. Our goal is not to grow to the size where we are selling all over the country. Additionally, we desire for our meat to be affordable for as many local families as possible as well as be the sole source. I don't know of many families who could afford to buy all of their meat from Niman Ranch. Their pork chops for example work out to about $10 each, ours work out to about $1.50 and our pork still has more moisture, flavor, and tenderness.

That being said, we do have quite a few customers who try all kinds of fun recipes with the meat they buy from us. I agree with you, it would be great if we could provide something like that, however it would dramatically change the type of farm/business we are.

Anonymous said...

So the uncured bacon you offer now, does that mean nothing has been done to it or does it mean it was cured "naturally" with fruit or vegetables or sugar?

Christiansen's Hog Heaven said...

It means nothing has been done.