This junk science is giving me a headache

New research attempts to associate nitrates in cured meats to increased risk of psychiatric disorders. Here’s why the science is bunk and the results should be ignored.

Amanda Radke

July 25, 2018

4 Min Read
This junk science is giving me a headache
Amanda Radke

There’s a frustrating trend in the scientific community to have a predetermined end result of a study in mind before research ever begins.

This is the case for so many things related to beef. If certain biased researchers had their way, they would have consumers worried about eating red meat in all forms — in a patty, as a steak hot off the grill or dehydrated into jerky. Do grill marks cause cancer? Does saturated fat cause diabetes? Do nitrates lead to manic episodes?

For these researchers, the answers are unequivocally yes, yes and yes, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary.

READ: Scientists cry foul over IARC red meat-cancer conclusions

Perhaps these folks should check their biases at the door and take the time to do real research that leads to valuable and meaningful results.

This is clearly not the case of a most recent study that links nitrates to increased incidences of psychiatric conditions.

As reported by Alice Park for TIME Health, “Plenty of foods contribute to inflammation, from sugar to saturated fat. But in a new study, cured meats are under scrutiny. They usually contain nitrates, a group of chemicals used as a preservative to cure meats like jerky, meat sticks and hot dogs, and nitrates have also been linked to inflammation and unhealthy outcomes, including cancer and brain disorders.”

Now I’m no scientist, but consider the uncontrolled variables of this study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. They evaluated 1,101 people, some who had psychiatric disorders and others who did not. These individuals then filled out a questionnaire about the types of foods that they ate. They were not asked how recently each food was eaten or how much was consumed, but they were asked to explain if they had eaten cured meats or raw and uncooked meats.

READ: Consumers want to know about your business

So the study included a small pool size of people with varying degrees of psychiatric disorders (or none at all). It asked vague questions about diets with the intent of pinpointing an association with nitrates and mental health issues. I can’t imagine it would be easy to make any sort of conclusion with these factors to consider.

Their conclusion? If you eat salami, beef jerky or hot dogs, you’re 3.5 times more likely to have been committed for having a manic episode.


Putting the uncontrolled study aside, we all know that association does not equal causation. Just because you ate beef jerky two weeks ago does not mean you’re going to suffer from mania down the road.

READ: Debunking the red meat & cancer meat once again

In the article, the researchers admit that the testing pool was incredibly small for the study and more information is needed to make any conclusions about an association between nitrates and mania. 

The researchers also say that the data do not suggest that eating foods high in nitrates will necessarily cause manic episodes.

And ultimately, the researchers say that nitrates “might be” one of “many factors” that contribute to mania.

The results of this study have me questioning why these results were even published. If there are no real conclusions to be made, no concrete evidence to identify nitrates as the causing factor of manic episodes and far too many variables that were uncontrolled in the study to make any reasonable summations of the results, then why is it in the press that beef jerky will lead to mental health problems?

It’s this kind of junk science that leads to consumer confusion and fear, and frankly, it gives me a headache. It’s hard to balance the conversation with factual information and common sense when this garbage continues to make headline news each and every day.

Frankly, TIME and other mainstream media outlets can do better. Stop with the bait-and-switch reporting and give us real information that helps improve our daily lives. As for the researchers, I’m guessing a second-grader could have put together a more controlled and meaningful study than this one; you’re grasping at straws and clearly had an end result in mind before this study ever began.

I’m going to go eat a stick of beef jerky now. Cheers!

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of or Farm Progress.

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