Do you pack sandwiches for lunch or grab a hot dog at a BBQ? These foods may contain added chemicals you should know about: nitrates and nitrites.
Manufacturers add nitrates and nitrites to foods such as cured sandwich meats, bacon, salami or sausages to give them color and to prolong their shelf life. When added to processed foods in this way, both nitrates and nitrites can form nitrosamines in the body, which can increase your risk of developing cancer.
The major concern is a class of synthetic food preservatives that includes sodium or potassium nitrates and nitrites, which food companies put in cured meat to preserve its color, prevent fats from going rancid and keep bacteria from growing.
These chemicals also contaminate drinking water because of nitrogen-based fertilizers as well as livestock and human waste. This is most dangerous for infants, who can develop a rare but serious condition known as methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” from drinking contaminated water. Nitrates and nitrites may also affect pregnancy outcomes. The EPA has more details about nitrite in drinking water here.
Keep in mind that there’s a difference between the nitrates that are added to foods and those that occur naturally in produce such as spinach and celery. The naturally occurring nitrates in food come with vitamin C and other compounds that inhibit conversion into nitrosamines. There is no data to suggest that naturally occurring nitrates are harmful, so keep on eating those healthful foods.
Here’s how to keep added nitrates and nitrites out of your body:
- Minimize your consumption of processed foods and cured meat products such as hot dogs, sausage and cold cuts.
- Check labels carefully and avoid products that list sodium or potassium nitrates and nitrites. In addition to lunchmeat, some canned beans and vegetables with bacon, and even packaged seafood, may contain these added chemicals.
- Eat organic food. Synthetic nitrates and nitrites are not allowed as preservatives in organic packaged foods and meats.
- Find out if your water is tainted with nitrates or nitrites. Public drinking water utilities test for these compounds and must disclose their results. If you drink well water, your local health department can help you find out if this is a problem in your area. You can also have your water tested by a laboratory. If the chemicals are present, consider treating your water with a home water distiller, a reverse osmosis filter or an ion exchange filter to remove any fertilizer nitrates in the groundwater.
- Eat a diet high in antioxidants. Vitamin C and certain other vitamins can reduce the conversion of nitrates and nitrites to nitrosamines.
Learn more about nitrates, nitrites and other hazardous food additives in EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives.