Also called saltpetre or nitres, potassium nitrate (E252) is a food additive used mainly as a preservative and coloring in meat products. What are the different uses of this product? Is potassium nitrate dangerous for your health? We take stock.
Potassium nitrate is a potassium salt of nitric acid. Its crude chemical formula is KNO3, which means that it is obtained by a reaction of NaNO3 and potassium chloride (KCl). It is part of the nitrite family. Nitrites appear in the form of small white crystals. It is a source of nitrogen that is commonly called “saltpeter”, “nitres” or “nitrate of potash”. This chemical substance occurs naturally in nature, notably in damp walls, rocks and certain soils, such as earth. This is how this substance is found in plant products, especially leafy vegetables such as spinach or lettuce, and the water we consume. This chemical is soluble in water.
But potassium nitrate is also used by food manufacturers as antimicrobial preservatives and coloring, mainly in meat products (meats and cold cuts). This product has the texture of a white powder, a crystalline salt. It is odorless and has a slight taste of salt.
What are the different uses of potassium nitrate E 252?
The E 252 has very diverse uses.
In the food industry, it is used as a preservative in meats and cold meats. “Historically, this food additive was used to slow the development of pathogenic bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum which causes food infections.explains Jimmy Thai, expert on food additive issues and author of the site https://www.docteur-fitness.com/.
“This product is also a coloring agent: its function is to give a red-pink color to meats and cold meats, in order to make these foods more attractive to the consumer. This is the reason why the ham is pink with nitrate and gray when this additive is no longer added to its composition“. How does it work? The nitrate decomposes when hot into potassium nitrite which releases nitrogen monoxide which in turn reacts with the red hemoglobin of meats, giving their typical coloring to certain cold cuts: ham, salamis, etc.
Thus, it makes it possible to produce products that visually resemble traditional cold meats.
This product also has non-food uses:
- Potassium nitrate or saltpeter is used in the manufacture of gunpowder, combined with sulfur and pulverized charcoal;
- Nitrate is an oxidant: this product is notably added to cigarettes to maintain uniform combustion of tobacco and it is used to produce smoke bombs;
- This product has a fertilizing function: this is the reason why it is included in the composition of certain fertilizers, as a source of nitrogen and potassium, two of the macronutrients essential for plant growth. Its manufacture requires reacting potassium chloride (KCl) with a nitrate source.
In what foods is this additive found?
This preservative is present as an additive in certain prepared dishes as well as in many food products based on meat and cold meats such as bacon, ham, bacon, rillettes, dry sausages, etc. Potassium nitrate is also in the water and vegetables. This product is also authorized in food products from organic farming. According to Inserm, more than 15,000 packaged products on the French market currently contain added nitrites or nitrates.1.
How do we know if our dish contains potassium nitrate?
You just have to look at the list of ingredients present in the food: the preservative potassium nitrate is hidden under the code name E 252.
This product is also available in stores (mainly for use in gardening). Expect a price of around €10 per kilo.
Is this preservative and coloring compatible with all diets?
Being of natural origin, potassium nitrate is compatible with vegan, vegetarian, vegan, but also halal, kosher and gluten-free diets. “However, since foods containing the preservative E 252 are mainly meat products, they are often incompatible with these consumption patterns.notes Florence Foucaut, dietitian-nutritionist.
What is the maximum authorized dose of the additive E 252?
Health authorities have set the acceptable daily intake at 3.7 mg/kg/day. But the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) recognizes that this dose is often exceeded. Not only because potassium nitrate is found in vegetables and water, but also because, according to Public Health Europe, 63% of adults consume more than the maximum recommended quantity of cold cuts (150g per week) and meat. (500 g per week).
Is the preservative and coloring E 252 dangerous for health?
At authorized doses, potassium nitrate would pose no health risk. “However, numerous studies highlight the toxic nature of this additive on our body when consumed repeatedly., underlines Florence Foucaut. However, nitrate being present in many everyday foods (meat, cold meats, water, vegetables, etc.), it is not difficult to exceed the safety level. The danger ? “Nitrates transform into nitrites in the body, a substance potentially harmful to healthspecifies Florence Foucaut. In July 2022, ANSES also established a link between the risk of developing colorectal cancer and the consumption of nitrates and nitrites, a risk already recognized since 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).”. Proposed law no. 3683, dating from the end of 2020, relating to the progressive ban on nitrated additives in charcuterie products, indicates that “According to the IARC, the consumption of cold meats and cured meats contributes to more than 4,380 cases of cancer in Europe (…). Experimental results conducted by INRAE have shown that nitrated cold meats have a specific carcinogenic effect, which cold meats manufactured without nitrated additives do not have..
In January 2023, Inserm also warned that the consumption of nitrites could lead to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.1. “Another danger: nitrites reduce the transport of oxygen in the blood, which can cause a risk of methemoglobinemia, characterized by a reduction in the ability of the blood to transport oxygen throughout the body.adds the dietician.
Also, it is recommended to limit your consumption of meats and cold cuts containing potassium nitrate, particularly among pregnant and breastfeeding women, children, the elderly as well as those suffering from significant medical pathologies (kidney, cardiovascular disorders). , respiratory, etc.).
NO to diets, YES to WW!
What future for the E 252 additive?
Potassium nitrate has now been banned for cured meat products since January 1, 2023. The use of this preservative and industrial coloring will be completely prohibited for other charcuterie products from January 1, 20252.