Avoid Nitrates and Nitrites in Food

Avoid Nitrates and Nitrites in Food

April 1, 2013

Nitrates and nitrites are chemical compounds that cause a lot of consumer confusion.

Nitrates are a normal part of the diet, but excessive levels can cause problems, especially for kids who pound for pound take in more than adults do. They have been linked to diseases like leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and ovarian, colon, rectal, bladder, stomach, esophageal, pancreatic, and thyroid cancer.

They’re found in our diets in several ways: as synthetic food preservatives and naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables like spinach and celery. Sodium nitrate and potassium nitrite are added to cured meat to preserve its color, prevent fats from going rancid, and stop bacteria from growing. They’re also found in drinking water thanks to nitrogen-based fertilizers as well as livestock waste.

Here’s where things get tricky: If nitrites are exposed to high heat during cooking, they can convert to nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. And when nitrates are used as a food additive or consumed, they can convert into nitrites.

Scientists believe that these conversions may be responsible for the link they’ve discovered between nitrates and nitrites and the diseases listed above. Nitrate or nitrite exposure has also been known to cause pregnancy complications and infant health problems.

Before you give up celery for good, keep in mind that there’s a difference between eating nitrates added to foods as preservatives and consuming them via produce. Nitrates that occur naturally are found alongside compounds like vitamin C that inhibit their conversion into nitrosamines in the body. When we eat nitrates and nitrites in foods artificially treated with them, we may not be getting these complementary nutrients and their preventative effects.

Here’s how to keep nitrates and nitrites off your plate:

1. Minimize consumption of processed foods and cured meat products like hot dogs, sausage, and cold cuts. Check labels carefully though—these compounds are also found in other products that contain processed meat and even some meat-free products.

2. Don’t be fooled by “uncured” or nitrate-free brands. These products typically contain high amounts of nitrates obtained from ingredients like celery juice, which means they could contain as much as if not more than their traditional counterparts.

3. Eat organic foods. They’re not grown with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, which can boost a crop’s nitrate content significantly.

4. If you live in an agricultural region, consider treating your water with a home water distiller, a reverse osmosis filter, or an ion exchange filter to remove any fertilizer nitrates that have accumulated in the groundwater.

5. Eat a diet high in antioxidants. Certain vitamins, like vitamin C, can reduce the conversion of nitrates.