Chemical compounds commonly used to cure ham, bacon and other meats are associated with type 2 diabetes risk, according to new research.
Nitrites are often used to extend the shelf life of food products. While harmless nitrites also occur naturally in foods, nitrite additives have been linked to certain cancers. A study published this week in PLOS Medicine has determined another health risk from the chemicals: type 2 diabetes. Researchers found people with elevated intake of nitrites, specifically from food additives and drinking water, had a higher risk of eventually developing the disease.
The study authors wrote that their findings show a “direct association” between nitrite additives and type 2 diabetes risk. The study is the first to find an association between the chemicals and type 2 diabetes.
The research team, which included scientists from the World Health Organization, the University of Paris, and Sorbonne University, used data from a nationwide study of over 100,000 French adults that tracked their dietary choices and health status between 2009 and 2021. From that data, the team estimated nitrite exposure. Participants with higher exposure to nitrites from food additives, and specifically those with higher exposure to sodium nitrite, had a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Processed meats were the biggest source of nitrite additives consumed by study participants, at 60%, followed by ready-to-eat meals with processed meats at 16%. Other foods with processed meats made up virtually all of the nitrite consumption.
In the paper, the researchers write that their findings are not evidence of a causal relationship between nitrites and diabetes.
Many public health authorities globally, including the US Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, set limits on the amount of nitrites allowed in food products and seek to enforce drinking water standards for the chemicals.