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Sodium Nitrate and Gluten

By Kirsten Anderberg

Sodium nitrate is a food additive used primarily to retard spoilage and retain color in processed meat products such as luncheon meats. It can be frustrating trying to figure out which foods and food additives are compatible with gluten-free diets and gluten allergies due to conflicting and/or incomplete information. Sodium nitrate is gluten-free but its health risks should be duly noted by those with sensitive stomachs and celiac disease.

Which Foods Have Gluten?

The U. S. Food and Drug Administration has set guidelines for the labeling of gluten-free foods. Products with wheat, rye or barley, or any hybrids containing these grains, may not use "gluten-free" on their labels. Exceptions are made for altered products, such as gluten-free whole wheat flour. Additionally, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires all food products containing the allergen wheat to be labeled, which is helpful to those wishing to avoid gluten. The federal guidelines for gluten-free labeling are the narrowest interpretation for gluten in food and additional lists of glutenous foods and food additives are provided by universities and medical institutions for those desiring a wider spectrum of products with potential allergic reactions for those with gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

What is Sodium Nitrate?

The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the FDA, is responsible for the safety and evaluation of food additives used in meat and poultry products. Sodium nitrate is in Group 1 of the prior-sanctioned substances under the FDA's Food Additives Amendment, meaning it is exempt from the regulation process put into place by the amendment, because it was determined safe for use in foods prior to the 1958 amendment. The FDA website describes sodium nitrate as a preservative that may be found in foods such as cured meats. The USDA defines sodium nitrate as "a color fixative in cured meat and poultry products (bologna, hot dogs, bacon)" which helps prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, a cause of botulism in humans.

Sodium Nitrate and Gluten

The FDA guidelines are vague and thus many other institutions have provided more extensive lists of foods and additives that contain gluten. MayoClinic.com provides a list of foods and additives to avoid on a gluten-free diet. While the MayoClinic.com does not list sodium nitrate on its list of glutenous foods, it does counsel against eating processed luncheon meats and imitation meats that are both high in sodium nitrate, while listing fresh meats which lack sodium nitrate as gluten-free. The University of Chicago's Celiac Disease Center lists sodium nitrate specifically as gluten-free on its list of additives.

Health Risks With Sodium Nitrate

The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University has published a website about sodium nitrate and its potential health risks. Sodium nitrate causes nitrosamines, which can irritate the stomach and cause other health problems. In the late 1970s, the issue of nitrosamines in cured meat was raised and the ban of sodium nitrate as a food additive was discussed but the risk of botulism outweighed the problems nitrosamine posed; however, less sodium nitrate is used in products than in the 1960s. Dr. Mehmet Oz acknowledges that sodium nitrate may have a connection to Alzheimer's disease. On his website, he has posted an article that states that smoked meats, such as bacon, deli-counter smoked turkey and ham contain nitrosamines which "cause the liver to make fats that can cross the Blood Brain Barrier and are toxic to the brain." While sodium nitrate may not be glutenous, it may be wise to avoid foods containing sodium nitrate for other health reasons.

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