If the words nitrites and nitrates conjure up visions of chem labs and high school science class for you, then you’re not alone. Many people didn’t realize that these chemicals can actually be found in many of our everyday foods. Lately, these two nitrogen-containing compounds are in the news again because of their potential role in human health. They’re linked to cancer, however, their connection is a little bit complicated. So, what is the difference between nitrate and nitrite? Which is worse? And what does all of this mean for your health?
The Difference Between Nitrites And Nitrates
Nitrites and nitrates are both nitrogen-containing compounds. The difference between them is their number of oxygen atoms present. Nitrites have two oxygen atoms, while nitrates have three (6).
Having two oxygen atoms makes nitrites more chemically reactive than nitrates. In other words, nitrites can change into other chemicals more easily than nitrates. This difference seems small, but it actually has big implications for human health (6).
To completely understand how nitrites and nitrates can impact our health, it’s important to know a little bit about their chemistry.
The Chemistry Of Nitrites And Nitrates
When we eat foods that contain nitrates (such as leafy greens, beets, and carrots), our bodies convert them into nitrites. Once they’re in our bodies, nitrites can then be converted into other important chemicals, like nitric oxide (6).
Nitric oxide is a gas that has many important functions in the human body. It helps regulate blood pressure, keeps the lining of our blood vessels healthy, and even plays a role in brain function. This means nitrates and nitrites are essential for our health. However, problems with nitrites and nitrates arise when they are used as food additives.
The Use Of Nitrites And Nitrates As Food Additives
Nitrates and nitrites are often added to processed meats, like bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meats. They’re added for three main reasons: to preserve the meat, improve its flavor, and give it a pink or red color (5).
When nitrites are added to meat, they help prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. This is important because meat can spoil quickly and may cause food poisoning. Nitrites also react with the protein in meat to create a distinct flavor that many people enjoy. Finally, nitrites give processed meats their pink or red color that makes it even more visually appealing.
While nitrites and nitrates are essential for our health, there is some concern that consuming them in processed meats may be harmful. In the presence of high heat (grilling or frying) and chemicals called amines (which are found in meat), nitrites can form compounds called nitrosamines (5).
Nitrosamines are known to be carcinogenic, which means they can cause cancer. In animal studies, high levels of nitrosamines have been linked to cancer of the stomach, colon, and pancreas. However, it’s important to remember that these studies were done on animals, not humans.
The jury is still out on whether or not nitrosamines formed from nitrites and nitrates in processed meats can cause cancer in humans. Some studies have found a link between consuming processed meats and an increased risk of cancer, while other studies have found no link.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified red meat as a “probable human carcinogen” (1). This means there is limited evidence to show that they can cause cancer in humans, but the evidence is strong enough that the IARC believes there is a connection.
The agency, which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), has also classified processed meat as a “definite human carcinogen”. This means there is enough evidence to show that there is a strong link between consuming processed meats and an increased risk of cancer (1). So, what does all of this mean for your health?
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Health Benefits Of Nitrites And Nitrates
Despite the concerns about processed meats, it’s important to remember that nitrates and nitrites are essential for our health. The saliva in our mouths contains bacteria that convert nitrates into nitrites.
Once they’re in our bodies, nitrites offer the following health benefits:
1. Cardiovascular Regulation
Nitrites help regulate blood pressure by dilating (widening) our blood vessels. This allows more blood to flow through them and lowers our blood pressure (2).
2. Improves Brain Function
Nitrites can cross the blood-brain barrier and have been shown to improve brain function. One study found that nitrites improved the cognitive function of rats with Alzheimer’s disease (2).
3. Reversal Of Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a condition that’s characterized by high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and abdominal fat. Nitrites converted into nitric oxide can help reverse the symptoms of metabolic syndrome by dilating blood vessels, improving insulin sensitivity, and reducing inflammation (2).
4. Improves Exercise Performance
Nitrites can improve blood flow and help deliver more oxygen to our muscles. This can lead to improved exercise performance, especially in people who are deficient in nitrites (2).
5. Boosts Immunity
Nitrites can help boost our immune system by protecting it against bacteria and viruses (2).
6. Wound Healing
Nitrites can help speed up the healing process of wounds by promoting angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels) (2).
7. Prevention Of Gum Disease
Nitrites can help prevent gum disease by inhibiting the growth of bacteria in the mouth (2).
How To Get More Benefits And Less Risk?
If you’re concerned about the potential risks of processed meats, there are a few things you can do to minimize your risk:
Eat More Leafy Greens
The type of vegetables that are highest in nitrates are leafy greens, such as spinach, arugula, and kale. These vegetables also happen to be packed with vitamin C and E, which moderate the formation of nitrosamines (3).
Limit Consumption Of Processed Meats
If you do eat processed meats, limit them to no more than two servings per week. When choosing processed meats, look for brands that are labeled “nitrate-free” or “uncured” (4).
Note that other types of curing, such as celery juice powder, can still contain high levels of nitrates.
Read Nutrition Labels
To know whether processed meat contains nitrates or nitrites, you’ll need to read the nutrition label. Ingredients that end in “-nitrate” or “-nitrite” are forms of these chemicals.
Common names for nitrates include:
- Potassium nitrite (E249)
- Sodium nitrite (E250)
- Sodium nitrate (E251)
- Potassium nitrate (E252)
Cook At Low Temperatures
When cooking any type of meat, cook it at low temperatures to reduce the formation of nitrosamines. Cooking your bacon in a microwave instead of frying it, for example, can reduce the formation of nitrosamines.
Other tips for cooking meat include:
- Use lean cuts of meat to reduce the amount of fat.
- Avoid charring meat by cooking it until it’s just done, not overcooked.
- If using a barbecue, cook meat on a lower rack to avoid charring.
- Continuously turn and baste the meat with a marinade to keep it moist.
- Remove any charred bits before eating.
Avoid Cured Meats During Pregnancy
If you’re pregnant, it’s best to avoid cured meats altogether. This is because nitrites can cross the placenta and potentially affect the development of the baby.
Baby blue syndrome is a condition that’s thought to be caused by high levels of nitrite in the womb. Fortunately, this condition can be treated.
Check For Nitrate In Your Drinking Water
You can’t see, smell, or taste nitrates in your water, but they may be there. The federal standards for drinking water limit the amount of nitrate in public water systems to 10 mg/L.
While there are no surefire ways to remove nitrates from your water at home, you can talk to your local water supplier about the levels of nitrates in your area.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some frequently asked questions about nitrites and nitrates.
Q: How Does Nitrate Become Nitrite?
A: Nitrate is converted to nitrite by bacteria that are naturally present in our mouths and stomachs.
Q: Which Is Worse, Nitrate Or Nitrite?
A: Nitrates are stable and not harmful on their own. Nitrites, on the other hand, can interact with other compounds to form carcinogenic (cancer-causing) nitrosamines.
Q: Why Are Nitrates And Nitrites Bad For You?
A: At high levels, nitrates and nitrites can be toxic. They can also interact with other compounds to form carcinogenic (cancer-causing) nitrosamines.
Q: What Foods Are High In Nitrates?
A: The type of vegetables that are highest in nitrates are leafy greens, such as spinach, arugula, and kale. Processed meats, such as bacon and ham, are also high in nitrates.
Q: How Much Nitrate Is Safe?
A: The maximum level of nitrates that are considered safe for human consumption is 100 mg/day. This level is based on the amount of nitrate that’s thought to cause cancer in animals.
Q: How Can I Avoid Nitrates And Nitrites?
A: You can minimize your exposure to nitrates and nitrites by eating more leafy greens, limiting processed meats, cooking meat at low temperatures, and avoiding cured meats during pregnancy. You can also check for nitrates in your drinking water.
The Bottom Line
Nitrites and nitrates are essential for our health, but consuming them in processed meats may be harmful. If you’re concerned about the potential risks, you can limit your intake of processed meats or avoid them altogether. You can also look for nitrite-free products.
When it comes to nitrites and nitrates, it’s important to remember that moderation is key. These compounds are essential for our health, but consuming too much of them may be harmful. As with anything, it’s important to strike a balance.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Cancer: Carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat (2015, who.int)
- Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits (2009, nih.gov)
- Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables (2012, nih.gov)
- Limit red and processed meat (n.d., wcrf.org)
- Nitrites and nitrates added to food (2017, europa.eu)
- Nitrate and nitrite in biology, nutrition and therapeutics (2014, nih.gov)