This past week the "health" news media inundated us again with another purported problem associated with ingesting nitrites from cured meats. However, it was not related to the traditional fear of cancer, which I have already addressed here at WND one year ago this month, as well as in the British Journal of Cancer, which is also referenced in the prior WND article. This time the media directed their attention to results of a recent study that had appeared in the July issue of the journal Molecular Psychiatry and published by researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, titled "Nitrated meat products are associated with mania in humans and altered behavior and brain gene expression in rats." Let's look at some of the problems with yet another overhyped "study."
First: Let's define mania. Mania is defined by a standard dictionary as "mental illness marked by periods of great excitement, euphoria, delusions, and overactivity." The synonyms of which are "madness, derangement, dementia, insanity, lunacy, psychosis, mental illness" (aka a liberal).
Second: The study relied on self-reported diet histories of roughly 1,000 individuals. The researchers attempted to associate the self-reported higher intakes of cured meats of those suffering from mania to those who were not, as evidence for nitrates as a precipitating factor to the symptoms of mania. Self-reported diet histories are considered highly unreliable, even by sane people, much less those suffering from mental illness. The authors, therefore, had no idea just how much, if any, cured meats of any kind any of the participants, sane or otherwise, was ingesting.
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Third: This was an association study, which simply means it is not possible to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship between two things, only an association. They could have found the same association with other idiosyncratic foods mentally ill people may tend to gravitate to as well. Even the authors state that their study does not illustrate any cause-and-effect relationship, only a possible reason to conduct further research.
Fourth: To test their hypothesis that cured meats may be problematic for those with mental illness, they fed rats either normal chow or a piece of store-bought, nitrate-prepared beef jerky. According to the authors, those rodents who consumed beef jerky "showed mania-like hyperactivity after a few weeks, while the rodents who ate nitrate-free foods behaved normally." Now just because the rats who consumed a better-tasting chow purportedly were more hyperactive after a few weeks does not mean they have mania. This is very subjective, unless the rodents were wearing a Fitbit to quantify their activity level. Is this even possible? There is no mention of the caloric value of either rat food portions. So, were the rats who were purportedly "more hyperactive" simply better fed calorically and therefore had higher energy levels? Were they happier due to better tasting food? Either would easily account for increased activity levels.
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Fifth: The researchers state they attempted to determine a mechanism of action that would support their theory by looking at differences in the rat's gut microflora for those who ate the nitrate beef jerky vs. normal rat chow, as well as changes in the signaling of their hippocampus, which is the area of the brain believed to be the center of emotion and memory. It is simple logic that when your diet changes, so does the composition of your gut microflora. This is well-established. But this does not indicate mental illness, just an indication of dietary changes.
Secondly, the authors did find altered signaling in their hippocampus – which means what? Remember, this part of the brain is associated with emotions, such as happiness, sadness, depression, etc. So, if you're consuming food that tasted considerably better than normal rodent chow, what would you expect to find? How about just interpreting the increased signaling as a happier rat vs. a rat bored with his food? I am certain that if you can test my hippocampus activity during the intake of a BLT vs. any bland food item, you would see a significant change in my hippocampus signal, which certainly does not mean I am symptomatic for mental illness, just happier.
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Sixth: Rats are not little people, which I have pointed out in past articles. Even if the speculative neurological pathways mentioned above by the researchers were true in the rodents, it does not mean the same takes place in humans. What happens in rodent does not translate directly to humans.
Seventh: The researchers appear to misunderstand their ingredients. Their research headline states "nitrated meat products." Yet, according to the North American Meat Institute, sodium nitrate "is rarely used to cure meat and only in some certain specialty meat products." Nitrite, not nitrate, is what is used, but it is really a moot point. Nitrates, which occur naturally in a wide variety of foods such as celery, beets, spinach, carrots, or any root vegetable, is readily converted to nitrites by the bacteria in your saliva. The nitrite from cured meats is a fraction of what you are normally exposed to from the ingestion of vegetables and your saliva. So, if cured meats are going to theoretically set in motion a mania episode, then eating many vegetables or swallowing your own saliva should really make you mentally unstable.
Eight: Nitrites, which are converted to nitric oxide in the body and acts as a signaling molecule, have well-recognized rolls in maintaining a healthy immune and cardiovascular system as well as other physiological functions.
Conclusion: This media-hyped study does not present any reasonable data to convince you to inhibit your intake of cured meats. If theoretically, you suffer from mania, then simply refrain from cured meats for your personal sanity. However, this would not mean cured meats are the problem, just your genetics. This would be the same issue as those who suffer from other food-related metabolic problems, such as those with diabetes, gluten sensitivity, MSG, lactose intolerance, etc. It would not indicate the molecule is the problem, just your genetics.