The report – published by Dr Marie Cantwell and Professor Chris Elliott in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics – links nitrates used to produce bacon and dangerous nitrosamines.
Nitrate and nitrite are used to improve food quality and protect against microbial contamination. They are sources of N-nitroso compounds (NOCs), which are known carcinogens capable of causing cancer in living tissue.
The report showed a wide range of factors affected NOC formation including the amount of nitrite added, meat quality, fat content, processing, packaging and how the meat was handled at home.
Professor Chris Elliott, from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s, said “The latest research at Queen’s University Belfast has shown that there is a direct link between nitrites and the formation of nitrosamines.
“This means that when people consume bacon –which is currently cured with nitrites in the UK – they could be increasing their risk of contracting cancer.
“From a health perspective, it is certainly beneficial to reduce our intake of nitrates and nitrites from processed meat. It is estimated that more than 50% of bowel cancer cases are preventable and lifestyle changes such as improved diet could help.”
The research from Queen’s suggested that natural alternatives to nitrates could be used in processing meat, such as green tea polyphenols that could be utilised for processing dry cured bacon.
This is not the first time that concern has been raised about processed meats. In 2012, research from Sweden indicated there was a 10% increase in the risk of pancreatic cancer from eating processed meats including bacon and sausages.
Meat processor Finnebrogue announced the launch of a nitrate-free bacon in January 2018 and other businesses have created similar products.