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August 19, 2019 2 min read

By Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD

You may have noticed the labels of certain foods, particularly some brands of cured and processed meats, are being labeled as nitrate/nitrite-free.

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering about the significance of this nutrition claim, keep reading to learn more about nitrates and nitrites, where they’re found and if you should be avoiding them.

What Are Nitrates and Nitrites?

Nitrates and nitrites are a group of nitrogen-based chemical ingredients. They can be both naturally occurring and added to manufactured foods.

Their primary function is as a preservative. They can prolong shelf life, prevent bacterial growth, add flavor and enhance the color of the foods. One of the most commonly used nitrate preservatives is a type of salt called sodium nitrate.

What Foods Contain Nitrates and Nitrites?

Nitrates and nitrites are used to cure many processed meat products, including: 

  • bacon
  • ham
  • hot dogs
  • sausage
  • salami
  • lunch meat
  • jerky

They are responsible for the pinkish hue and the salty, smoky flavor of many of these meats.

Almost all plant foods contain some nitrates from the soil they are grown in. Nitrogen in the soil is converted to sodium nitrate and absorbed by plants as they grow. Vegetables with the highest amounts of nitrates include:

  • beets
  • cabbage
  • carrots
  • celery
  • leafy greens, like spinach, lettuce, and Swiss chard
  • radishes

Are Nitrates and Nitrites Bad For You?

Nitrates themselves aren’t bad for you. Once in the body, nitrates are converted to nitrites; basically they lose an oxygen molecule, which can then turn into either nitric oxide or nitrosamines. Nitric oxide has heart health benefits. It helps arterial walls relax and can help regulate blood pressure. Nitrosamines, on the other hand, are considered carcinogenic.

Nitrosamines are produced when nitrates are combined with protein (aka amino acids) at high temperatures. Processed meat products contain high amounts of protein and are typically prepared using high heat cooking methods (i.e. fried bacon, grilled sausage). These may increase the formation of the nitrates turning into nitrosamines.

Nitrates from processed meats are more likely to be converted to nitrosamines than nitrates from plant sources. The Vitamin C content of plants prevents the conversion of nitrites to nitrosamines; therefore nitrates and nitrites from plants are not a major concern.

Should You Avoid Nitrates and Nitrites?

The World Health Organization has categorized processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens. High intake of processed meats is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and several types of cancer. It’s unknown whether these increased risks are solely caused by nitrates and their conversion to nitrosamines. But because processed meats are also high in calories, saturated fat and sodium, it’s a good idea for most people to reduce consumption of these products. 

There is no evidence suggesting plant-based nitrates are bad for you. Vegetables with high levels of nitrates offer many nutritional benefits and are good sources of vitamins, antioxidants and fiber.

If you’re concerned about reducing nitrate consumption, choose organic produce and nitrate-free meat products whenever possible. Organic crops aren’t exposed to nitrogen-based fertilizers, which may cut down on the nitrates they absorb from soil.

Cutting back on processed foods and choosing fresh, whole foods can benefit your waistline and automatically reduce your exposure to food additives and preservatives like nitrates. 

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