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Nitrates and Nitrites—Are They Good, or Should We Stay Away?

Jul 15, 2016|By Marta Oddone
While there is reason to be cautious around some nitrites, most nitrates are good for your health. Knowing the difference can help you to maintain a healthy diet. Nitrates and nitrites are found in a number of foods, including processed meats. Whether or not they’re good for your health depends on the foods you find them in, as well as how those foods are processed.

Let’s Talk About Nitr-A-tes

Nitrates (NO3) are actually healthy—they can improve cardiovascular health and lower the risk of cancer! These compounds, found in soil, are absorbed by plants, so eating green and clean and drinking lots of water every day provides the body with a healthy level of nitrates. Nitrates are also added to processed meats, such as salami or bacon, as a preservative. They give the meat a salty taste and a pink or red color, and they also prevent harmful bacteria from growing over time.

Is There Such a Thing as Bad Nitr-I-tes?

Nitrates, as described above, can transform into nitrites by coming into contact with bacteria in the mouth or enzymes in the body. If they are converted to nitric oxide (NO), they are still beneficial to the body, because the resulting gas helps the body relax, which in turn can decrease blood pressure and improve physical performance. Some medications and supplements include nitrates for this reason. Nitrites themselves are not harmful, unless they transform into nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic compounds.

Don’t Let it Get Too Hot!

When the nitrites in meat are exposed to high heat (266ºF, to be exact), the meat can form carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines. Although nitrites can be harmful in these circumstances, since the risks have become well known, steps have been taken to reduce the presence of nitrites in meat. Consumers can also reduce the risk of nitrosamine by cooking meat at low heat over a longer period of time—so don’t worry, you can still enjoy your bacon! For those who want to be sure they are avoiding any risk of consuming harmful nitrites or nitrates as a preservative, shop on Direct Eats where you can easily search and filter by Nitrate Free foods!
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