Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Nitrosamines are formed when nitrogen-containing groups on amino acids and related compounds combine with nitrite, a chemical that has been used for millennia in salt-cured meats, and that suppresses the bacterium that causes botulism. This reaction between amino acids and nitrites takes place both in our digestive system and in very hot frying pans. Nitrosamines are known to be powerful DNA-damaging chemicals, yet at present there’s no clear evidence that the nitrites in cured meats increase the risk of developing cancer. Still, it’s probably prudent to eat cured meats in moderation and cook them gently.