When trying to make diet changes in order to improve health, nitrates are one of the additives most of us try to avoid. In general, additives and preservatives aren’t ideal, and we want to avoid them when possible.
But in the healthy living community there are many differing opinions on nitrates, whether we should eat them, when, how much, and whether we should really worry about them at all. Many of us pay more for nitrate-free meats. The question is, is it worth it?
Are Nitrates in Food Bad?
Before we get into nitrates and nitrites, it’s important to understand what cured and uncured meat is. Cured meat is cured with sodium nitrate, or sodium nitrite, most often created in a laboratory. Uncured meat is still cured, but using only celery juice).
Nitrates vs. Nitrites
Nitrates occur naturally and aren’t harmful. In fact, nitrates are essential to good health, and the body makes plenty of nitrates every day.
When you ingest nitrates, they can turn into nitrites in the mouth or stomach. But nitrites aren’t inherently bad either. Nitrites can turn into nitric oxide in the body. One health benefit of nitric oxide is that it helps improve oxygen circulation and blood pressure.
The source of concern over the nitrate content in food stems from a 1970s study that connected nitrates to cancer in rats. However, once the study was peer-reviewed, nitrates were officially debunked as a carcinogen and no other studies have been able to find a link between dietary nitrate intake and cancer.
The amount of nitrates that are found in cured meats (the main source of nitrates we worry about) is fairly low, too. In fact, there are more nitrates in vegetables and human saliva than in cured meats. The CDC estimates that 80 percent of dietary nitrates are from vegetables.
Obviously, vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, so we shouldn’t stop eating them. (Honestly, most of us should probably eat more vegetables!) When we talk about nitrates from vegetables, they are absolutely nothing to worry about.
The reason we don’t need to worry is that vegetables also contain vitamin C or other antioxidants. This encourages nitrites to convert into a healthy nitric oxide, rather than the concerning nitrosamine.
Unlike nitrates or nitrites, there is a link between nitrosamine and certain cancers. To really solidify these findings, larger studies are still needed.
Cured or uncured meats are more likely to contain nitrosamines (or encourage their conversion in the body). Meats contain amines that change nitrites into nitrosamine. This is more likely to happen when you cook cured meats at high temperatures.
To sum up, nitrates and nitrites aren’t inherently bad. However, nitrates and nitrites in processed meats are much more likely to turn into nitrosamines than other sources of nitrates.
Synthetic Nitrates vs. Naturally Occurring
While on the surface it seems like uncured meats (those cured with naturally occurring nitrates from celery juice) would be a better choice than meats cured with chemical nitrates, this may not be the case.
Common sense tells us that something that’s created in a lab may not react the same way in the body as something that is formed naturally. But there’s no research that compares the effects on the body of naturally “uncured” meat versus cured meat. So it’s unclear if one is really “better” than the other.
However, chemically cured pork may be safer than “uncured” pork in one respect. Chemical curing kills the disease trichinosis, but celery juice curing does not kill it.
Yet another angle to consider is that the USDA caps the number of nitrates that can be used in cured meats, but they do not regulate nitrates from celery juice in “uncured” meats. So we could be getting much more nitrates from “uncured” meats than from cured ones.
All of that being said, I still see uncured meats as a better choice (on occasion) because they are more likely to be higher quality meats with fewer other food additives. The reason is that people who buy uncured meats also prefer no antibiotics, no additive meats, organic foods, and companies are marketing uncured meats to these people.
What to Do About Nitrates in Food
Based on research, nitrates and nitrites aren’t a health risk I’d sit up worrying about at night. Though there is some concern about nitrates ultimately turning into nitrosamine, there are some ways to reduce the risk and still enjoy an occasional grass-fed hot dog.
- Reduce intake of cured/uncured meats – As with any food, variety is important and cured or uncured meats shouldn’t be a daily dietary staple (cue groans from my husband). Use common sense and watch your daily intake of meat products.
- Heat cured meats on low temperatures – Slow cooking can reduce nitrosamine conversion and increase beneficial nitric oxide conversion instead. Use these tips when grilling.
- Eat with vitamin C and other antioxidants – Since the 1970s, the USDA requires companies to add vitamin C to cured meats to protect against cancer risk. Adding additional vitamin C to your meal may reduce risks further. For example, eating bacon and eggs with sautéed vegetables for breakfasts adds some vitamin C (and is a good way to sneak in veggies in the morning!).
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
What’s your story? Do you avoid nitrates, eat them in moderation, or choose not to worry at all? Share below!
Discussion (12 Comments)
It feel this article over emphasizes nitrates as safe, but they are only safe if they are consumed with sufficient vitamin C.
This was really informative – thank you. We annually get a side of pork that is raised humanely and on grass by neighbors. Every time butchering options come up, I agonize over whether or not to have them cure the ham and bacon (they use a cure with nitrites (nitrates? now I’m not sure!). In the past I’ve chosen not to have them do it, thinking I’ll just do it myself. But home curing is time consuming and the pork is already frozen when I get it from the butchers. So the uncured meat often sits in my freezer. This time I decided I’d rather have meat that’s convenient for us to consume and take the chance of nitrite consumption that’s only a couple times a month. After all, I know the quality of the meat is good to start with. Anyway, your article has helped my decision. Thank you!
We avoid nitrates/nitrites as much as possible. My husband has Arnold Chiari Malformation which is an abnormally small bony space, or cradle if you will, that can cause pressure on the cerebellum as there just isn’t enough room. It can cause major headaches, and we noticed it was more intense with certain foods he eats. Cutting out MSG, nitrates, nitrates and other chemicals (there is a whole list of ingredients that cause the same reaction in the body as MSG) definitely helps. The headaches appear to be mainly due to inflammation caused by these ingredients. Watching the diet has helped keep the headaches at a manageable level.
I have idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension which is a rare neurological disorder where my body makes too much CSF and it causes pressure on my brain and spinal cord. I’ve noticed that preservatives cause headaches and increase symptoms. I don’t know why but i think we just all need to listen to our bodies!
I majorly avoid these types of foods. On Father’s Day last year I thought I was dying, visited my emt neighbor & he assured me I looked fine enough, but to seek medical attention if I felt it necessary. My mind was very cloudy -fuzzy feeling, weird. I felt light headed, short of breath, & like I had a weird ability to walk balanced. I eventually called 911 & they said they couldn’t see anything amiss with my vitals but if I wanted I could go to the hospital. I felt stupid at that point & chose to stay home. I have certain food allergies so I was really careful to think about what I ate…..no allergens. I did have bacon the night before & canadian ham/pork roll in the morning. Didn’t make the connection yet -but soon enough after a few times eating some lunch meat (both kinds, some from a sub shop & other times at home with organic sliced turkey lunch meat with only celery stuff) I realized that I have some type of nitrate sensitivity! Not fun –so I avoid that stuff like the plague!!! Does anyone else have this?
Christine A Moran
I agree either above comments that illustrate our individuality. After taking the Viome test, I realized that some healthy foods impact everyone differently.
My husband bouts sustainably raised pork and cure our bacon with salt and brown sugar. So, to me, this bacon is good and healthy to eat. We are rushing to eat instead of thinking about what we eat and why. It’s agame changer.
I’ve always read that nitrates are a cause of migraines. As s migraine sufferer, I avoid meats with nitrates in them as I have experienced migraines after eating meat with nitrates in them.
Wow! Thank you for this blog! Now I can print and show this to my class. These young adults are soooo infested with wrong science imbued by their parents / peers. I mention barbecue and they freak out!
Nitrates and nitrites (and sulfates and sulfites) are on the long list of things I can’t eat due to interstitial cystitis. I don’t know if they are bladder irritants in general, but I do know that if I eat cured meat I can count on at least a day of pain to follow.
Interesting. I’ve been battling this condition on and off for the last 8 years and never considered a link. I will definitely have to pay more attention.
Jules, here are some lessons learned from me that are unrelated to this blog post. The absolute worst food additive for me is MSG. I learned the hard way that it is also called Yeast Extract and Autolyzed Yeast on labels (according to some websites they are actually MSG, some say not, but in any event they have the same effect). Another trigger it took me months to figure out is Mucinex.
Drinking milk is very soothing for me. I have tried eating low carb a few times and within 2-3 days I start having pain. I re-introduce milk and feel better within a day or two. Slippery Elm Bark and Marshmallow supplements also help when I am having a flare.
Good luck figuring out your trigger foods!
Kelly, with all respect she asked if we avoid them or not. Fact based research is most relevant here. I don’t understand why our personal medical issues/anecdotes are relevant in a discussion like this. We all know that people can be sensitive to all sorts of things. Has nothing to do with the main topic at hand.