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Nitrates and Nitrites in Foods: Should You Step Away From the Bacon?

If you follow nutrition headlines at all, you may get mixed messages about nitrates and nitrites. Some seem to have health benefits — in fact, you can even buy supplements designed to boost these gains. But others could be bad for your health, especially if you eat a lot of them. 

What’s the truth?

It turns out, both claims are true. That’s because not all nitrates and nitrites are the same. Lillian Swatek, a dietitian with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, explained more.

Nitrates and nitrites are compounds made up of nitrogen and oxygen. You’ll find them in different types of foods.

Some nitrates and nitrites occur in nature. They are found in soil, water and air and are nutrients for plants. You’ll find them in:

  • Leafy greens like lettuce, kale, parsley and spinach
  • Root vegetables like radishes, carrots and beets
  • Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower
  • Other vegetables like celery, cucumber, endive, fennel and leek
  • Fruits like pumpkin, watermelon and apples
  • Some drinking water

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are created in a lab and added to foods to preserve them, keep them fresh, fight bacteria and enhance their flavor and color. They often make foods pink, flavorful and salty.

You may find them in:

  • Processed meats like bacon, ham, sausages, bologna, hot dogs, pepperoni, salami, corned beef and deli meats.
  • Canned meat
  • Smoked fish
  • Soups, sauces and snacks
  • Cheese and dairy products

How added nitrates and nitrites affect your health

Some studies have found that nitrates and nitrites that are added to foods may increase your risk of certain health conditions. High levels of foods that contain nitrates and nitrites may contribute to:

  • A condition where your blood can’t carry as much oxygen (methemoglobinemia)
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease
  • Colorectal cancer and stomach cancer, since nitrates and nitrites react with compounds in the stomach to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogens (substances that may cause cancer)

“In 2015, the Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) concluded that processed meats are carcinogenic. Processed meats can also contain high amounts of sodium and saturated fats that can contribute to your risk of heart disease,” Swatek said.

In response, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put regulations in place to limit the amount of nitrates and nitrites added to food. Food manufacturers must follow these guidelines and label products containing added nitrates and nitrites. That way, you can read the food label to make an informed decision about what you’re buying. Limiting the amount of added nitrates and nitrites you eat may reduce your risk of health issues. 

How natural nitrates and nitrites affect your health

You’re not likely to run into any health problems from the nitrates and nitrites you find naturally in vegetables and fruits. They have other nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Some of those nutrients counteract the process that makes added nitrates and nitrites increase your risk for health problems.

In fact, studies have found that some foods high in nitrites may be good for you. That’s because your body converts them into nitric oxide, which may increase blood flow, decrease blood pressure and promote heart health. So it’s a good idea to eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, including high-nitrate options like spinach, kale, beets, carrots and radishes.

How to cut back on added nitrates and nitrites

You can reduce added nitrates and nitrites if you:

  • Choose nitrate/nitrite-free, low-nitrate/nitrite or uncured processed meats. But be careful with the labeling. “Meat labels that state ‘uncured’ or ‘no added nitrates’ can be misleading. They may use a naturally occurring source of nitrates, such as celery powder, that can still produce nitrosamines when added to meat. In some cases, these may have more nitrates than the cured versions,” Swatek said.
  • When you cook meats, use lower temperature methods like baking or roasting. Cooking at higher temperatures or charring or overcooking meat can create more harmful compounds that could cause cancer. “Charring or smoking any meat or fish can produce cancer-causing substances that may damage your DNA. It’s OK to have a hot dog at a picnic or ham on a holiday, but I advise against eating them regularly,” Swatek said.

The bottom line

The nitrates and nitrites you naturally find in vegetables and fruits may give you health benefits. Plus, these foods are packed with lots of other nutrients. The nitrates and nitrites manufacturers add to foods, on the other hand, are linked to health risks. It’s best to limit the amounts of these foods that you eat.

To learn more about foods and how they can impact your health, reach out to an expert at Banner Health.

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