Have you ever been curious about nitrates and the foods that contain them? Are nitrates associated with any health risks? If you want to know more about nitrates in food and why they’re used in food processing, keep reading.
What are Nitrates in Food?
Nitrites are responsible for the distinctive color, flavor, and aroma of cured meats like ham and bacon. Since nitrites are both antioxidants and antimicrobial, they significantly benefit food safety. For example, they can stop the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism, one of the deadliest foodborne illnesses. They serve as preservatives because they prevent spoilage bacteria from growing, giving cured meats a longer shelf life than fresh meats. (1)
Depending on the recipe, processors may use nitrate or nitrite. During the curing process, bacteria convert nitrate (NO3) to nitrite (NO2). For items like dry sausages or dry-cured hams, which require nitrate constantly to produce nitrite throughout the curing process, nitrates are only used in long cures. Modern meat processors simply add nitrite directly to the formulation in extremely precisely controlled amounts for the large percentage of cured meats.
Nitrites vs. Nitrates
Natural chemical substances that contain nitrogen and oxygen include nitrates and nitrites, such as potassium nitrate and sodium nitrite. As opposed to nitrites, where nitrogen is connected to just two oxygen atoms, nitrates have three oxygen atoms as part of their structure. Both are safe preservatives that keep harmful bacteria from growing in foods like bacon, ham, salami, and some cheeses. (2)
There is frequently misinformation about nitrite exposure from meat. In fact, only 20% of the nitrite that the body is exposed to comes from food. Just 2 to 3 percent of that 20% is made up of processed meat. Natural sources of nitrate include spinach and other green leafy vegetables. Numerous vegetables contain high nitrate levels, which, when in contact with saliva in the mouth, transforms into nitrite. An estimated 80% of nitrite exposure comes from the body. (3)
List of Nitrates in Food
The foods below are those that give our diets the most nitrates. However, there is no recommendation to limit nitrate-containing vegetables. Natural sources of nitrates include the following vegetables. (4)
In addition to being a fantastic salad ingredient, spinach is a fantastic source of dietary nitrates. Fresh spinach has a nitrate content of 24 to 387 mg per 100 grams. Depending on the growing environment, this amount varies.
Natural nitrates can be found in foods other than leafy greens. Carrots contain 92 to 195 mg of nitrates per 100 g, making them a slightly earthier choice.
Bokchoy has the highest nitrate content of all the cabbages. Bokchoy’s nitrate content per 100 g can range from 103 to 309 mg, depending on the conditions under which it was grown.
Despite not always having a good reputation for being nutrient-dense, lettuce has a significant amount of inorganic nitrates. Each 100 g serving has between 13 and 267 mg of nitrates.
There is no need to completely avoid nitrates because they can be converted into beneficial nitric oxide. Eat nitrate-containing foods that are naturally occurring in foods, where the compound is present along with other antioxidants and vitamins.
Foods High in Nitrates to Avoid
Nitrate levels are high in a good deal of processed meat. Despite being helpful for food preservation and color enhancement, these nitrates harm one’s health. Various studies suggest adding vitamin C to cured meats high in nitrates can stop the nitrite compounds from forming. The foods below are high in nitrates that need to avoid in your food choices.
The highest source of dietary nitrates is often ham. Cured ham can contain up to 890 mcg of nitrates in a single 100 g serving. This is where cured hams get their signature pink color.
One of the meat products that are most heavily processed is hot dogs. For every 100 grams of meat in a typical hot dog, there are approximately 9 mg of nitrites and 50 mcg of nitrates.
Bacon contains up to 380 mcg of nitrates per 100 g of weight. Additionally, the nitrite content in bacon is extremely high. Since nitrates and nitrites are frequently used in bacon production, some companies label their packaging nitrite-free. Bacon without nitrites was tested to have up to 680 mcg of nitrates per 100 g, nearly twice as much as nitrite-containing bacon.
Another significant source of unsafe nitrates is deli meat. On average, cured deli meats contain up to 500 mcg of nitrates per 100 g of meat, while uncured deli meats only contain about 300 mcg.
Nitrates in Food Side Effects
Although nitrates and nitrites are essential compounds, they can be dangerous if they turn into nitrosamines. If you cook nitrates or nitrites at a high temperature, nitrosamines may develop. Nitrosamines come in many forms, and many of them can increase cancer risk. For instance, tobacco smoke contains nitrosamines, one of the primary carcinogens.
The Effect of Nitrates on Pregnancy
Methemoglobinemia, a condition caused by a high nitrate intake, limits the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. (5) However, several studies showed that routine maternal nitrate intake was not linked to congenital disabilities or an elevated risk of methemoglobinemia. (6) Furthermore, there is insufficient proof to suggest that nitrate levels in our diets are even high enough to threaten our health, including the health of expectant mothers and the unborn children they carry. (7)
The human body and some foods naturally contain the compounds nitrates and nitrites. Additionally, they are included in some processed foods to increase shelf life. Today’s processed foods contain fewer nitrites than before because manufacturers only use a minimum amount due to strict regulations. When buying processed meats, carefully examine the label to find a product with few or no additives that contain nitrates to lower your risk of nitrosamine exposure.
Disclaimer: This article is only a guide. It does not substitute the advice given by your own healthcare professional. Before making any health-related decision, consult your healthcare professional.
Editorial References And Fact-Checking
- National Cancer Institute U.S. (2022). Nitrate. Retrieved September 18, 2022, from https://progressreport.cancer.gov/prevention/nitrate
- Huber, J. C., Jr, Brender, J. D., Zheng, Q., Sharkey, J. R., Vuong, A. M., Shinde, M. U., Griesenbeck, J. S., Suarez, L., Langlois, P. H., Canfield, M. A., Romitti, P. A., Weyer, P. J., & National Birth Defects Prevention Study (2013). Maternal dietary intake of nitrates, nitrites and nitrosamines and selected birth defects in offspring: a case-control study. Nutrition journal, 12, 34. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-12-34
- Gassara, F., Kouassi, A. P., Brar, S. K., & Belkacemi, K. (2016). Green Alternatives to Nitrates and Nitrites in Meat-based Products-A Review. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 56(13), 2133–2148. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2013.812610
- Hord, N. G., Tang, Y., & Bryan, N. S. (2009). Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 90(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2008.27131
- Ebdrup, N. H., Schullehner, J., Knudsen, U. B., Liew, Z., Thomsen, A., Lyngsø, J., Bay, B., Arendt, L. H., Clemmensen, P. J., Sigsgaard, T., Hansen, B., & Ramlau-Hansen, C. H. (2022). Drinking water nitrate and risk of pregnancy loss: a nationwide cohort study. Environmental health : a global access science source, 21(1), 87. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-022-00897-1