What is it used in? It is used in all types of processed meats: hot dogs, lunch meat, sausage, pepperoni and bacon, for instance. Just for fun, I looked it up on Wikipedia and found some other uses: "Sodium nitrate may be used as a constituent of fertilizers, pyrotechnics and smoke bombs, glass and pottery enamels, as a food preservative and a solid rocket propellant." I guess if you get tired of ham sandwiches, the sodium nitrate laden meat can be used to make explosives? Fabulous.
Why is it not so great for you? Well, if the above section does not convince you that such an all-in-one food product couldn't possibly be good for you, here is what some research has found. The National Institutes of Health published an article last year showing the connection between processed meat (i.e. hot dogs, bacon, lunch meat) and colorectal cancers. There have been numerous studies showing the connection between consumption of red meat and this cancer but this study showed the connection specifically with the processed meats. There are a lot of research studies out there but this article summed of the gist of them well. I recall reading somewhere (can't remember where now!) about how there was an attempt to have Sodium Nitrate removed as a food preservative in 2005, but that a large group of meat lobbyist had it disbanded.
What to do? Thankfully, you don't have to give up bacon or summer hot dog roasts! There are several brands (non organic) that carry sodium nitrate/nitrite free bacon, lunch meat, and hotdogs. Of course, any organic meats will not have the preservative in them. Although we do not eat processed meats very often, the organic options are too expensive for our budget so these are the alternatives I have found for our family:
Hormel lunchmeat - the website & Sunday paper occasionally has coupons and Kroger will put on sale for around $3/12 oz:
Oscar Mayer also carries lunch meat, as well as bacon and hotdogs that are nitrate free. They can be expensive when not on sale (bacon & hotdogs run around 5.99/pack) but with sale and coupons, it is reasonable ($3-$4 or less) and I will get several to stock up in the freezer.
Aidells brand carries sausages that are nitrate free and taste really good.
Companies produce what the consumer buys. Maybe one day people will become more knowledgeable about what is in their foods and stop buying these foods that cause diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. Or maybe the FDA will ban it completely. Highly unlikely but at least I can read labels and keep the explosive, fertilizing, pottery enamel substance out of my fridge!