There is a lot of confusion about nitrates and nitrites in food. Nitrates are usually associated with processed meats, but they are also naturally occurring compounds that are found in vegetables and even our own saliva. In some cases they seem beneficial, but in others they’re known to cause cancer. So what is the truth about nitrates?
What is a Nitrate?
Nitrates and nitrites are both naturally-occurring chemical compounds. Both made of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, nitrates can be converted into nitrites by bacteria and enzymes. Both are found often in vegetables. Nitrates are a natural part of mineral deposits in the soil, while nitrites come from those deposits being broken down by microorganisms.
Most of the nitrates we eat come naturally from vegetables and are totally harmless. In fact, the high nitrate content in certain vegetables has been linked to lower blood pressure. Nitrites can be beneficial as well. Under most conditions our bodies convert nitrites to a gas called nitric oxide which also lowers blood pressure and fights infections.
Why Nitrates in Processed Meats are Different
While we get helpful nitrates from vegetables, added nitrates are much different. Nitrates are often added to processed meats, like salami and bacon, to keep them looking red and fresh. Natural nitrates in vegetables may be helpful, but nitrates in meat can increase the risk of cancer.
On their own, nitrates are fairly inert - they don’t easily convert to other forms. Nitrites react more easily, but the Vitamin C in vegetables and the enzymes in our own bodies encourage them to change into helpful nitric acid. Under the right conditions, though, nitrites can convert into nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are linked to cancer, especially bowel cancer.
So what makes nitrites turn into nitrosamines?
The two biggest factors are heat and protein. Nitrosamines need protein to form and high temperatures encourage them. Processed meats like bacon are the perfect place for carcinogenic nitrosamines to form - high in protein and cooked at high temperatures.
To lower the risks of nitrates, foods are now required to add Vitamin C to inhibit nitrosamine production, But is the answer to additives just adding more additives?
The easiest way to avoid harmful nitrate additives is to buy foods that don’t have them to begin with. Try some Stryker Farm bacon or hotdogs made without nitrates or added preservatives, just wholesome ingredients. Green Owl believes that the quality of your own life is more important than extending the shelf life of your food!