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Columnist
Don't go nuts over salmonella
By Dr. Ed Blonz | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 2/25/2009 12:03 AM

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Q. Please explain why roasted whole peanuts and peanut butter are being recalled. I had thought that these would be safe and that only raw peanut products were dangerous.

I.D., Piscataway, N.J.

A. Assuming it is done correctly, any salmonella contamination of a peanut should be completely eliminated during the roasting process, whether it's an oil roast or a dry roast. Oil roasting and dry (oven) roasting take place at temperatures well above the temperature needed to destroy this organism. It has to be done right, though, to assure that all the nuts get up to the right temperature. (There is an explanation of the temperatures used in peanut processing at tinyurl.com/b6z7xa. You'll need software than can read files in PDF format.)

Assuming the roasting is not the issue, the risk can come from what goes on afterward. Think, for example, of doing a great job of washing your hands, only to dry them off with a dirty towel. If a company does not have proper hygiene and food-safety protocols, their products are at risk anywhere along the line.

Recalls are designed to overcompensate and stop the outbreak, while the food safety detectives identify how the food was tainted and how it got into your store. Check the Food and Drug Administration Web site (fda.gov) for peanut recalls, and then look for the peanut brands you use.

Q. I have several relatives who have had colon cancer, and one of the things I am doing is staying away from foods that use nitrite preservatives, because they can form cancer-causing nitrosamines. I now read that spinach and many of the other vegetables I eat contain nitrates and that these can convert to nitrites. How dangerous are the nitrates in foods, and are these things I should also be seeking to limit?

B.G., Las Vegas, Nev.

A. Nitrates are compounds that are naturally present in many different types of foods, including vegetables and fruits. Nitrites are food additives used in cured meat products to decrease the risk of botulism. Nitrosamines are carcinogenic compounds that can form when a nitrite combines with an amine. (Amines are released when the amino-acid building blocks of protein are metabolized.)

Before a nitrate can become a nitrosamine, it must first be reduced into a nitrite, and it then has to be alongside an amine in an environment that encourages their combination. The conversion of nitrate to nitrite is usually handled by bacteria, and while there are bacteria in our saliva, they convert only a small amount of the nitrate we consume. The process is inhibited in an acid environment, so if there is vitamin C, as is often the case with fruits and vegetables, it proceeds even more slowly.

Nitrates tend to be absorbed after they leave the stomach. There are bacteria in the large intestine, but by that point there is a negligible risk of any nitrate straggler finding and sidling up to an amine and turning into a nitrosamine.

Contrast all this with nitrite-preserved meat products, in which all the players (the nitrite and the amine from the meat protein) are there in the same package.

There is no guarantee that nitrosamine will form - and nitrites are certainly preferable to the risk of botulism - but by comparison, the natural nitrates in fruits and vegetables represent a healthful walk in the park.

• Ed Blonz, Ph.D., is a nutrition scientist and the author. Write him at "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Newspaper Enterprise Association, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016 or ed@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.