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Nasty Nitrates

Uncured Pork Bacon, nitrates

Nitrates and nitrites have cancer-causing potential. But are they all bad?

Nitrates can make most of us think of both bacon and backyard fertilizer, but they’re probably less likely to be something you’d associate with cancer.

If we consider nitrates in the context of food, it is probably a negative image that comes to mind. Meat is bad- right? And that is why many countries have called for nitrate and nitrite preservatives to be banned because of their potential cancer-causing effects?  The answer is a complicated “yes, and no”.

Are all nitrates bad for us?

The relationship between dietary nitrates, nitrites and health is more nuanced than merely saying “it is bad for you”. Some nitrates can be good, and knowing the difference is essential for optimum nutrition.

The high natural nitrate content of beetroot juice has been credited with lowering blood pressure and enhancing workouts. Nitrates are also the active ingredient in some medications for angina, a condition in which reduced blood flow causes chest pain.

Nitrates and nitrites, such as potassium nitrate and sodium nitrite, are naturally occurring chemical compounds that contain nitrogen and oxygen. In nitrates the nitrogen is bonded with three oxygen atoms, while in nitrites the nitrogen is bonded with two oxygen atoms. Both are legal preservatives that suppress harmful bacteria in bacon, ham, salami, and some cheeses. 

From all the press around processed meat, you may imagine it is the only source of nitrates in our diet, but it is also consumed by eating vegetables. Organic vegetables can acquire nitrates and nitrites from the soil they grow in and are part of natural mineral deposits.

Leafy greens like spinach tend to contain the highest nitrate content, with other high sources including celery, beetroot juices, and carrots. Organically grown vegetables do not use synthetic nitrate fertilizers associated with this increased risk of cancer.

Cooking processed meats and the cancer connection

There’s an important difference between the way nitrates and nitrites act in meat versus vegetables. Nitrates are inert by themselves, meaning they are not involved in chemical reactions in the body. But nitrites, and the chemicals formed from them, are much more reactive.

Nitrites in processed meats are like other proteins including amino acids, but when cooked at high temperatures they easily form nitrosamines, the cancer-causing compound.

Most of the nitrates we encounter are not consumed directly but converted from nitrates by bacteria in our mouths. It has been found that the nitrites made in our mouths can react in the stomach’s strongly acidic environment. This forms nitrosamines, some of which are carcinogenic and have been linked to bowel cancer.

A combination of proximity to proteins and high temperatures creates cancer-causing nitrosamines in processed meats. Several other factors may contribute, including iron; PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which are created during the smoking of meat; and HCAs (heterocyclic amines), which occur during the cooking of meat over an open flame, and that are also known to cause cancer.

The good and the bad

If nitrites and nitrates aren’t confusing enough, it is true they aren’t all bad. There’s increasing evidence they may provide cardiovascular and other benefits thanks to a molecule called nitric oxide.

US scientists in 1998 won the Nobel prize for discovering the role of nitric oxide in cardiac care. We now know it dilates blood vessels, lowers blood pressure and is part of the body’s defense against infections. Limited capacity to produce nitric oxide is associated with heart disease, diabetes, and erectile dysfunction.

One way the body makes nitric oxide is with an amino acid called arginine. But it’s now known that dietary nitrates can also significantly contribute to nitric oxide formation. We also know that this may be particularly helpful in older people, since natural nitric oxide production via arginine tends to drop with aging.

Although the nitrates in meat and beets are chemically similar, there is a difference and you’re better off with organic, vegetable-based, and 100% grass-fed meats raised without added chemically created nitrates and nitrites.

animal-fat-rich foods

Better options

Bacon and meat-based diets are increasingly popular, but if you want to avoid the harmful effects of added nitrates and nitrites, consider an organically raised 100% grass-fed diet, organic fruits, and vegetables, and stay away from commercially processed meats. With US Wellness meats, you can enjoy the highest quality bacon and uncured meats without worrying about nitrates and nitrites. Our animals eat well, so you can too. Get yours now.

Read more about Nitrates on the Discover Blog.

Written By Erin O’Brien