WHO: Chemistry Assistant Professor & Cooking Chemistry Expert Matthew Hartings
WHERE: Via phone, email, Skype, or at American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
BACKGROUND: Matthew Hartings, assistant professor of chemistry, is an expert in communicating chemistry for public engagement and is an official American Chemical Society expert. Hartings has spoken widely on cooking chemistry topics and teaches a popular science course at American University for nonmajors called "Chemistry of Cooking."
Of the risks related to consuming processed meats, Hartings says: "There is some risk involved in eating processed meats because they are made using nitrates and nitrites. These chemicals, which come from curing salts, have been used for ages to preserve the meat that we eat. The problems that they pose include the production of nitrosamines after we eat the nitrates. That is, the nitrates enter our digestive system, undergo chemical reactions with other molecules found in our guts, and get converted into nitrosamines.
While cured meats are cancer causing, as the World Health Organization has indicated, the overall risk to developing colorectal cancer from eating cured meats is relatively low.
The hazard posed by eating red meat is not quite as clear. Scientists aren't sure that their consumption can lead to cancer. The other thing that scientists aren't sure of is the way that eating red meat would lead to cancer. That is, with the nitrates, scientists are fairly confident that the nitrates are converted into nitrosamines in the gut. Scientists do not have a similar molecular rationale for why red meat would lead to the development of cancer. There is some speculation that heme (the chemical that makes red meat red) can cause nitrosamine formation in the digestive system. But, that hypothesis is still very much uncertain.
The process of cooking these types of food (bacon or a cheeseburger) can lead to the formation of cancer-causing compounds. Frying bacon and searing a hamburger or steak are both processes that develop tasty flavors alongside compounds that are known carcinogens. And, while these molecules can cause cancer, the relative risk that we expose ourselves to by eating them is relatively small."