You have likely heard about nitrates, especially in the context of avoiding them in processed meats.
But what are they exactly, and do they actually pose a threat to our health?
That’s what we are going to explore in this article.
What are nitrates?
Where Nitrates Come From
Nitrates are naturally occurring chemical compounds which contain nitrogen and oxygen. They along with nitrites are used to cure and preserve processed meats. (Source)
By a complex series of reactions, nitrates are responsible, along with nitrites, for the color of cured meats. In most countries, their use as a preservative is limited.
Since we usually hear about nitrates as they related to processed meats, you might think that is where they are most commonly found in our diets.
Not true! Processed meats only account for about 5% of nitrates in the European diet for example. Vegetables actually have a much higher concentration, as they acquire nitrates and nitrites from the soil where they grow. (Source)
Nitrates vs. Nitrites
In order to understand the effect of nitrates on your body, it’s important to first understand the difference between nitrates and nitrites.
These are two types of compounds, consisting of a single Nitrogen atom bonded to a number of Oxygen atoms.
- Nitrate: 1 Nitrogen, 3 Oxygens – Chemical Formula: NO3-
- Nitrite: 1 Nitrogen, 2 Oxygens – Chemical Formula: NO2-
They differ in the number of oxygen atoms. NitrAtes have 3 oxygen atoms, while NitrItes have 2 oxygen atoms.
Another difference is that it seems that nitrates are relatively inert—meaning they don’t interact with other chemicals in our bodies.
However, we convert nitrates to nitrites when we consume them. And nitrites are not so inert.
What nitrites to do your body
The truth is, nitrates and nitrites aren’t inherently bad. It all comes down to what nitrites are converted to in the body.
Let’s say you eat food containing nitrates.
When you’re consuming this food with nitrates, as you chew, enzymes in your saliva and bacteria in your mouth break it down into nitrites.
What happens with nitrites is what determines whether it is a cause of concern or not.
Nitrites can either convert to…
- Nitric oxide
Nitric oxide has many health benefits. It acts as a vasodilator to dilate the blood vessels and lower blood pressure, for example. It also may help our cell powerhouses, mitochondria, work more efficiently. (Source) This is why you may have heard of high intensity athletes drinking beet juice, a natural source high in nitrites, before a competition.
There are a number of review articles supporting the carcinogenic effects of nitrosamine. (Source) When nitrites reach your stomach, they can eventually form carcinogenic nitrosamine in the acidic environment, some of which have been linked with bowel cancer. (Source)
Where Nitrates/Nitrites Come from Matter
Not all sources of nitrates/nitrites are equal.
“It’s not so much nitrates/nitrites per se [that are carcinogenic], but the way they are cooked and their local environment that is an important factor,” says Kate Allen, executive director of science and public affairs at the World Cancer Research Fund. “For example, nitrites in processed meats are in close proximity to proteins (specifically amino acids). When cooked at high temperatures this allows them to more easily form nitrosamines, the cancer-causing compound.” (Source)
Nitrite is converted to nitrosating agents which subsequently react with amines in the meat during processing, storage, and cooking to form nitrosamines. (Source)
Whereas nitrites naturally occurring in vegetables are accompanied by other antioxidants and vitamins, that processed meat are lacking, which encourage nitrites to form nitric oxide instead of nitrosamine.
What should I eat Instead?
Don’t worry at all, this does not mean that you have to give up meat entirely.
There are ways that you can enjoy continue to enjoy your meat products. It’s a simple switch from ham, bacon, pastrami, salami, hot dogs and sausages to freshly prepared meats like organic grass fed beef! You would be surprised what a difference organic meat makes in your energy and your overall health over time.