Nitrates and Nitrites - Good or Bad?

Patient Expert

Nitrates and nitrites sound alike and in some ways they are very similar. Both are preservatives found in processed meats, but they are also found in different types of produce. Additionally, nitrates actually transform into nitrites during the digestive process.

Researchers are split about whether these ingredients – which may go by the name of “celery powder” and “celery juice” when listed in packaging -- spell trouble for your health if eaten regularly in some forms.

So first, let's learn a bit more about nitrates and nitrites.

Nitrates

A 2009 study pointed out that 80 percent of dietary nitrates are consumed in vegetables while nitrites can be found in vegetables, fruit and processed meats.  One type, sodium nitrate, is found in some bacon, jerky and luncheon meats.

Nitrites

While also used as a preservative in many processed and cured meats, nitrite is found in produce such as spinach, radishes and lettuce. Furthermore, 13 percent of the nitrites in your body comes from swallowed saliva.

Health consequences

A story on LiveScience.com suggests that a review of the evidence indicates that researchers are starting to find that these preservatives are safe. However, other studies suggest that these substances, when eaten in the form of processed meats, may damage blood vessels, thus leading to an increased risk of heart disease. Furthermore, nitrates from processed meats may change the way that your body uses sugar, thus increasing your chances of developing diabetes. Studies also have found that this type of nitrites may damage cells and change into molecules that cause cancers, especially ovarian cancer and kidney cancer.

However, it may depend on how your body uses the nitrites. Researchers are finding that your body's gut bacteria and the interaction of nitrates/nitrites with other foods during the digestive process play a key role in determining whether nitrites will be harmful to you. This video provides a good overview:

So what should you do? Experts continue to suggest limiting your consumption of processed meats. In other words, make bacon, ham and other processed meats an occasional treat, as opposed to a regular part of every meal. Instead, choose small portions of lean fresh meat, poultry or seafood and fill your plate up with produce instead.

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Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

Hord, N.G., et al. (2009). Food Sources of Nitrates and Nitrates: The Physiologic Context for Potential Health Benefits. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Levine, J. (2015). Eat Clean, Get Lean. AARP: The Magazine.

Yoquinto, L. (2011). The Truth About Nitrite in Lunch Meat. LiveScience.com.

Zeratsky, K. (2015). Does the Sodium Nitrate in Processes Meat Increase My Risk of Heart Disease? Mayo Clinic.