Japanese knotweed may lower cancer risk of processed meat, find researchers

By Flora Southey

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Food additive sodium nitrite is commonly used in processed meat products to control the growth of pathogenic bacteria. GettyImages/LauriPatterson
Food additive sodium nitrite is commonly used in processed meat products to control the growth of pathogenic bacteria. GettyImages/LauriPatterson

Related tags processed meat Food additive Nitrite

Replacing carcinogenic compound nitrite in processed meat with an extract taken from Japanese knotweed could reduce cancer risk, according to an EU co-funded research project.

Whether eating red meat, and in particular processed meat, is associated with cancer risk is a hotly debated topic.

Some argue that meat and meat products provide essential nutrients to the human diet, and as a result, may contribute to reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases.

While others, including the World Cancer Research Fund, argue that significant evidence exists linking processed meat consumption with cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified processed meat as a carcinogenic to humans.

It has been suggested that N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) are partly responsible for the link between red meat consumption and cancer risk – notably colorectal cancer (CRC).

As food additive sodium nitrite (E250) is commonly used in processed meat products, a team of researchers is examining the potential for botanical extract replacements to reduce sodium nitrate consumption.

Replacing E250 with botanical alternatives

“The ongoing worries about highly processed red meat have often focused on the role of nitrite, and its links with cancer. The PHYTOME project tackled the issue by creating processed red meat products that replace additives with plant-based alternatives,” ​said Gunter Kuhnle, study co-author and Professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Reading.

One such botanical alternative being tested under the EU co-funded PHYTOME project comes from Japanese knotweed.

The perennial weed is native to Japan, China and Korea. Although feared by homeowners for its ability to invade gardens and buildings, Japanese knotweed contains a chemical that has the potential to replace nitrite preservative in cured meats, such as bacon and sausages.

In processed meat, nitrite preservative is used to control the growth of pathogenic bacteria, to prevent rancidity, and to create the characteristic pink colour of cured meats.

In the study, the researchers evaluated the effect of consumption of processed red meat containing reduced levels of nitrate that had been enriched with phytochemicals, such as Japanese knotweed extract.

Split into two groups, 63 study participants in the Netherlands consumed processed meats containing standard nitrate levels or reduced nitrite levels. The processed meats consumed in both groups contained selections of natural antioxidants and bioactive molecules delivered by plant extracts.

The amount of apparent total N-nitroso compound (ATNC) was then tested participants’ faecal water.

Promising results

Findings revealed a ‘significant’ reduction in faecal ATNC levels – a surrogate marker of endogenously formed NOCs – as compared to the consumption of conventional processed red meat products.

“Our latest findings show that using natural additives in processed red meat reduces the creation of compounds in the body that are linked to cancer,”​ explained Kuhnle.

And surprisingly, the researcher continued, the natural additives seemed to have some protective effects even when the red meat contained nitrite.

“This suggests that natural additives could be used to reduce some of the potentially harmful effects of nitrite, even in foods where it is not possible to take our nitrite preservatives altogether.”

Source:​ Molecular Nutrition & Food Research
‘Replacement of nitrite in meat products by natural bioactive compounds results in reduced exposure to N-nitroso compounds: The Phytome Project
Published 12 August 2021
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/mnfr.202001214
Authors: Simone G. van Breda, Karen Mathijs, Harm-Jan Pieters, Virag Sagi-Kiss, Gunter G. Kuhnle, Panagiotis Georgiadis, Giovanna Saccani, Giovanni Parolari, Roberta Virgili, Rashmi Sinha et al.

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