New Anses opinion confirms link between nitrite consumption and cancer

12 July 2022

In a highly anticipated opinion published on July 12, 2022, the French national agency for food safety (Agence nationale de sécurité alimentaire – Anses) confirms for the first time the link between nitrite consumption and cancer. 

The Authority, which had been seized in June 2020 by the French Ministries of Health and Agriculture to assess the risks associated with the consumption of nitrites and nitrate, posits that, “The analysis of literature data confirms the existence of an association between the risk of colorectal cancer and exposure to nitrates and nitrites ingested via processed meat”. 

Safe Food Advocacy Europe welcomes this document which endorses previous scientific opinions issued by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

What are nitrites? 

Nitrites are natural chemicals which can be found in the soil, water or vegetables and whose salts are used as food additives to cure meats, preserve food, and help prevent the growth of bacteria such as salmonella or listeria. These chemicals have sparked concern over the years, with two 2017 EFSA scientific opinions pointing to the harmfulness of nitrites and to their carcinogenic potential. Indeed, nitrites can react with the heme iron in meat to form what is known as N-nitroso compounds, which were associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. When interacting with secondary amines during the digestion phase, nitrites can also contribute to the formation of nitrosamines, i.e. possibly carcinogenic compounds that have been linked to gastric, colon or esophageal cancer – a link now confirmed by the French authority. 

Further options to phase out nitrite use 

In its opinion, the French agency therefore asks to limit “as much as possible” nitrites use in food, calling it “a health security imperative”. However, the Anses simply recalled the usual nutritional recommendations, i.e., no more than 150 grams of cold cuts per week and at least five fruits and vegetables per day.

In a May 2022 feedback on the revision of nitrite and nitrate amounts under regulation (EC) no 1333/2008 on food additives, SAFE argued that bolder measures ought to be established at EU level to reduce nitrate and nitrite exposure. 

It is indeed feasible to reduce permitted amounts for sodium nitrite (E250) and potassium nitrate (E252) to those already in use in organic agriculture. Regulation 889/2008 on organic production – which has been in application for over a decade – notably lays down maximum levels two to three times lower than those currently envisioned by the Commission in the context of the revision of regulation 1333/2008. Additionally, new production and brining methods such as the innovation plan “Production of salami without nitrite” financed by the Emilia-Romagna Region demonstrate that it is already possible to produce cured meats without nitrate and nitrite preservatives.