Are they good for you? Bad for you? Nitrates are often talked about when it comes to food choices, but do you really know all that you need to about them? From what they are to where you can find them, we’ve got the answers for you.
By Jackie Scrivanich, Contributing Writer
The Truth About Nitrates
Fat is bad! No, sugar is harmful! Food dye is bad! No, cholesterol is the problem! No, nitrates are a problem! It seems that every few months something new is considered bad for us. The problem is being able to determine if these things are actually bad, and if so then how do we avoid them?
Being a mom of two young boys, and attempting to live a healthy lifestyle for our family, I often find myself wondering if I am doing all I can for them. I refuse to drive myself crazy by worrying about everything. I also will not ignore evidence that something may be harmful for my family.
I read an article last year about how a child should not eat more than 12 hotdogs a month or there will be an increase in the risk of cancer. While I could not imagine eating that many hotdogs in a month, now I have a preschooler who loves when his daddy grills. So what are we to do? No hotdogs or sausages ever? No more lunch meat or bacon? Are nitrates as bad as we are being told?
What Are Nitrates?
Scientifically speaking, a “Nitrate is a naturally occurring compound that is part of the nitrogen cycle, as well as an approved food additive. It plays an important role in the nutrition and function of plants” (Source). Nitrates are just one of the many chemicals in the plants that we eat. So nitrates can be considered safe for us to eat.
Or at least, that is when they naturally occur.
Nitrates are also referred to as sodium nitrate. Sodium nitrate is a preservative. It was first used as a way to slow the growth of bacteria and diseases like botulism. This was very beneficial when people did not have electricity and refrigerators like we do now, or they needed to take meat with them on a journey. When nitrates are used in our processed meats they are no longer naturally occurring. It is important that we look at the effects that this may have on our health.
Where Are Nitrates Found?
As previously stated, nitrates are naturally occurring in many plants. In fact, “Approximately 80% of dietary nitrates are derived from vegetable consumption” (Source). Some vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach, and other leaf crops, generally have higher nitrate concentrations (Source).
Sodium nitrate is “used in some processed meats, such as bacon, jerky and luncheon meats” (Source). Nitrates are added to things like cured or smoked lunch meats, salami, sausages, hotdogs, and more. In just about any food that needs to be preserved, nitrates may be used. They are even in many of our water supplies.
Nitrates are mostly found in vegetables, fruits, and processed meats. So it seems that nitrates are in a lot of the foods that we eat regularly. Vegetables and fruits are important to our diets and processed meats are everywhere.
Are Nitrates Healthy?
That is the big question, and there does not seem to be a clear answer. Here is what we do know about nitrates and our health:
- In 1962, the World Health Organization made a recommendation based on findings from a study from the FDA. This recommendation is that the “Acceptable Daily Intake for humans of 5 mg sodium nitrate or 3.7 mg nitrate per kg body weight, which equals 222 mg for a 60-kg adult” (Source). This is still the recommendation followed today.
- “Nitrate and nitrite are considered hazardous, and there are legal limits to their concentration in food and drinking water” (Source).
- According to the Mayo Clinic, “Sodium nitrate…could increase your heart disease risk” (Source).
- “The presence of nitrates and nitrites in food is associated with an increased risk of gastrointestinal cancer and, in infants, methemoglobinemia” (Source). This is when, “bacteria in the mouth and gut convert nitrate into nitrite, and nitrite reacts with hemoglobin to produce methemoglobin, which is no longer able to carry oxygen” (Source). That being said, it is also possible that other factors contribute to methemoglobinemia, like contaminated water.
- “Nitrate and nitrite themselves are not carcinogenic, but nitrite formed from dietary nitrate might react with dietary amines to form carcinogenic nitrosamines” (Source)
- “There is even evidence emerging of a possible benefit of nitrate in cardiovascular health. There is also evidence of nitrate intake giving protection against infections such as gastroenteritis” (Source). It is unclear if this refers just to naturally occurring nitrates, or those found in processed foods as well.
Seemingly, the nitrates that occur naturally in vegetables and fruits are not the issue. It is, however, unclear whether or not nitrates found in our processed meats are safe for us or not. It does not seem there have been adequate studies done to determine whether it is safe or not and at what levels it is considered safe or unsafe.
From what I have found, it is clear enough to me that due to a lack of clear evidence that nitrates are safe, and with the evidence that there could be some serious issues, like cancer, connected to eating nitrates, that our family will do all we can to limit them in our diets.
How to Stay Away from Nitrates?
If you feel that nitrates are a concern for the health of your family, you might choose to stay away. For me and my family, we have decided to be more aware that there may be some serious concerns when it comes to nitrates. While the jury is still out on how much is okay and how much is too much, we decide to err on the side of caution and limit our intake as much as possible. The Mayo Clinic suggests that “if you eat meat, it’s best to limit processed meat and instead choose lean, fresh meat and poultry, and keep serving sizes small” (Source).
When buying meats, like lunch meats and hotdogs, we attempt to purchase options that have no nitrates at all or ones that use celery powder or other celery-type product as a natural nitrate. More research needs to be done on those types of products though.
Nitrates or No Nitrates?
Whatever you choose to do for your family, be educated. Do your research and make a decision that is best for your family. I feel that I have a responsibility to do all I can to protect my children.
I have found a local meat shop that uses local meat to make their own lunch meat and they do not use nitrates. This is a great option for us. We do not completely live nitrate-free, but we limit them where possible. Like most things in life, moderation seems to be a good option.
We have yet to find a good option for all of the meats we eat. With nitrates we should do our best to life a free as possible from them, but eating in moderation, especially from natural sources, seems to be an alright option.