A Review of the In Vivo Evidence Investigating the Role of Nitrite Exposure from Processed Meat Consumption in the Development of Colorectal Cancer

Nutrients. 2019 Nov 5;11(11):2673. doi: 10.3390/nu11112673.


The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) 2007 stated that the consumption of processed meat is a convincing cause of colorectal cancer (CRC), and therefore, the public should avoid it entirely. Sodium nitrite has emerged as a putative candidate responsible for the CRC-inducing effects of processed meats. Sodium nitrite is purported to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum and other food-spoiling bacteria, but recent, contradictory peer-reviewed evidence has emerged, leading to media reports questioning the necessity of nitrite addition. To date, eleven preclinical studies have investigated the effect of consuming nitrite/nitrite-containing meat on the development of CRC, but the results do not provide an overall consensus. A sizable number of human clinical studies have investigated the relationship between processed meat consumption and CRC risk with widely varying results. The unique approach of the present literature review was to include analysis that limited the human studies to those involving only nitrite-containing meat. The majority of these studies reported that nitrite-containing processed meat was associated with increased CRC risk. Nitrite consumption can lead to the formation of N-nitroso compounds (NOC), some of which are carcinogenic. Therefore, this focused perspective based on the current body of evidence links the consumption of meat containing nitrites and CRC risk.

Keywords: colorectal cancer; nitrite; processed meat.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinogenesis / chemically induced
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Diet / adverse effects*
  • Food Handling*
  • Humans
  • Meat Products / analysis*
  • Nitrites / adverse effects*
  • Risk Factors
  • Sodium Nitrite / adverse effects


  • Nitrites
  • Sodium Nitrite