The federal government is considering new restrictions that may prevent food manufacturers from labelling processed meat products as "natural" if they contain cultured celery extract, a preserving agent that is a source of potentially unhealthy nitrates and nitrites.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is "currently reviewing the use of certain claims used in conjunction with meat products made with cultured/modified celery extract," the agency said in an e-mail.
The issue is receiving fresh attention as a result of controversy over the fact that new lines of hot dogs, bacon, ham and deli meats branded as natural contain cultured celery extract, a source of nitrates and nitrites, which a growing number of consumers are trying to avoid.
The products, which include those sold under the Schneiders Country Naturals and Maple Leaf Foods Natural Selections brand, are labelled as being made with "natural ingredients" and containing no artificial preservatives.
But some food and nutrition experts say that type of language may mislead consumers into thinking the processed meat products don't contain nitrates or nitrites, which some studies have linked to a possible increase in cancer risk and other problems.
Maple Leaf Foods, which also owns Schneiders, disputes the veracity of those studies and says nitrates and nitrites occurring in cultured celery extract are natural and pose no risk.
Under the current system, there are no specific or binding regulations surrounding use of the word "natural" when it comes to food products, according to the CFIA. But the agency said it does have guidelines that suggest meat products can only be labelled "natural" if all the ingredients are from a natural source. The "natural" claim cannot be used if the product contains nitrates or nitrites.
However, companies are allowed to claim that products are made with "natural ingredients" with no preservatives "except those naturally occurring in the ingredients" if the ingredients are from natural sources, such as cultured celery extract, according to the CFIA.
But it's unclear whether consumers are aware of the distinction between "natural" and made with "natural ingredients," say food and nutrition experts.
Now, it appears the CFIA may take action to ensure consumers are aware when nitrates and nitrites are present in processed meats, even those branded as natural. The agency was unable to provide an interview, but said in an e-mail it is looking into the matter.
Maple Leaf Foods says the labels on its natural meats are in full compliance with federal rules and that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has expressed no concerns over the labels or ingredients in the products.
The company says consumers shouldn't be concerned over the presence of nitrates or nitrites.
"I believe that the evidence [processed meats may be unhealthy]is very weak," said Randall Huffman, chief food safety officer at Maple Leaf Foods. "The ingredients that we use are used at safe levels in our products. We follow the regulatory requirements and nitrite is safe. We consume nitrite and nitrate in a variety of food products every day."
Although nitrates are found naturally in vegetables, nutritional experts say they are safe because the presence of vitamins cancels out any negative impacts. The concerns stem from the fact they may be converted into nitrites when they are consumed. The World Cancer Research Fund states that nitrites can react with protein-rich foods, such as meat, and produce nitrosamines, which have been linked to cancer.
Maple Leaf Foods said this isn't a concern when it comes to eating processed meats and that the only time nitrosamines are formed is when bacon is badly scorched.
The World Cancer Research Fund states that while frying meat at high temperatures can produce nitrosamines, they can also be formed by consuming processed meats. The research body produced an expert report that found people who consume 50 grams of processed meat every day face a 20 per cent increased risk of developing bowel cancer.
Andrew Milkowski, adjunct professor in the animal sciences department at the University of Wisconsin and scientific adviser for the American Meat Institute, which represents the interests of companies selling meat products, agrees with Dr. Huffman that research linking nitrates and nitrites to health problems is flawed.
He pointed to the fact that many studies saying processed meats and nitrates or nitrites may lead to certain forms of cancer or other health problems are based on epidemiological research, which attempts to determine what factors may be involved in the development of certain diseases.
Epidemiological studies can never prove cause and effect, only that factors, such as smoking and an increased rate of lung cancer, appear to be linked.
For that reason, Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of Ottawa's Bariatric Medical Institute and advocate on a variety of nutrition issues, said that it is difficult, if not impossible, to ever prove that processed meats are definitively linked to an increased incidence of cancer or other diseases. In order to do so, scientists would have to expose one group of people to a diet filled with processed meats while another consumes no processed meats over a period of several years or decades, which is virtually impossible.
Studies involving animals exposed to nitrates have found that those that consumed nitrates were more likely to develop cancer.
But meat-industry officials say no evidence shows those results apply to humans.
Regardless of what the research says, Joe Schwarcz, director of the McGill University Office for Science and Society, says moderation is an important key to health.
"It's always a mistake to focus in on single foods either as angels or devils," he said.