Up until recently, I believed that nitrates and nitrites were harmful and had no place in a healthy diet. I only bought “nitrate and nitrite free” bacon and sausage, and advised my friends to do so as well. My mistake, I should of looked into the recent research before making these unfounded recommendations! It wasn’t until I started studying Holistic Nutrition that I began to look past the mainstream headlines (we all need to do this!) and into the actual science. Everytime I do this, I find evidence that completely changes my mind.
The study that originally connected nitrates with cancer risk and caused that huge scare has since been peer-reviewed and discredited. There have been major reviews of the literature and still no one can find a link between nitrates/nitrites and cancer (1). Furthermore, the science now indicates the potential BENEFITS of nitrates and nitrites for heart health and immunity. I know that is hard to believe after being told to stay away from them for decades, but please keep an open mind because nutrition science is very young, and it’s important to think critically and stay curious.
What Are Nitrates and Nitrites? How Are They Produced?
In short, nitrites are the metabolites of nitrates. Dietary nitrates can be converted to nitrites by bacteria under the tongue or in the stomach. Once nitrites, they then can be converted to nitric oxide.
70-90% of nitrites are made endogenously from the bacteria in our mouths (our bodies make it! how could it be so poisonous if our own bodies make it!) and the other 10-30% come from our food and water. About 25% of the nitrate we eat is converted to salivary nitrate and up to 20% is converted to nitrite (2). They do not accumulate in our body and most of the absorbed nitrates in our bodies are excreted via urine within 5 hours. Then, in our stomach, this nitrite interacts with our gastric contents producing nitric oxide (which has many positive effects), but little of that is absorbed. Our bodies are way smarter than we are, so why do you think they would endogenously produce 70-90% of nitrites if nitrites were carcinogenic? Not to go off topic, but it makes me think of cholesterol. Everyone is scared of dietary cholesterol, but did you know our liver makes up to 85% of our total cholesterol? And that it’s so strictly regulated by our bodies that if you’re eating a lot of cholesterol-rich foods, the liver won’t make as much? And if you’re eating “low cholesterol” stamped foods (please don’t), your liver will pick up the slack and produce more just to keep your cheerio-eating-butt alive? I digress..
Where Do Nitrates Come From?
Now that we know our bodies make a majority of nitrites, and that nitrate from food is converted to nitrites (and at a low level), I hope you’re already less concerned about buying “nitrate/nitrite free” bacon and sausage. But alas, there is more to know!
The primary source of nitrates in our diet come from vegetables, and to a lesser degree, water and other food sources. When you think of nitrates and nitrites you probably immediately think of processed meats and cancer risk. That’s how good the media is at reporting cherry-picked science via a catchy headline. Here’s the kicker: processed meats account for less than 5-10% of our intake. On average, about 93% of the nitrites we get each day comes from the nitrates in vegetables(2).
Here’s a stat that really surprised me: one serving of arugula, two servings of butter lettuce, and four servings of celery or beets all have more nitrite than 467 hot dogs — and your OWN SALIVA has more nitrite than all of them! To really drive it home: nitrites are produced by our own bodies in greater amounts than we can ever get from food (3).
The Benefits of Nitrates and Nitrites:
Not only should there be no fear around nitrates and nitrites, but it’s time to look at them with a brighter light — how can they benefit our health?
As I stated in the beginning of this article, recent evidence suggests that nitrates and nitrites are beneficial for cardiovascular and immune function. It seems the greatest physiological impact they have is providing a non-enzymatic foundation to Nitric Oxide. To take this one step further, here are some of the benefits of Nitric Oxide:
- One of the most important compounds for blood vessel health
- It’s a vasodilator: it relaxes the walls of your blood vessels increasing circulation and lowering blood pressure
- Decreases muscle soreness
- Improves erectile dysfunction
- Boosts exercise performance
- May help manage Type 2 Diabetes
The road to these benefits:
Dietary Nitrates → Nitrites → Nitric Oxide →Improved Circulation, Recovery, Lowered Blood Pressure.
This Nitrate/Nitrite/NitricOxide pathway all starts with dietary nitrates being converted to nitrites by the bacteria in your mouth, so stop using mouthwash that kills them all! I wonder if there is a strong correlation between people who use mouthwash and people with poor circulation?
Should I Buy “Nitrate-Free” and “Uncured Meats”?
Cured meats must include the salts, sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate, so when you buy meats labeled “nitrate-free” and “uncured,” they are using “natural” sources of the very same chemical, such as celery and beet juice and sea salt. It’s still the same chemical, and no more free from nitrates and nitrites as conventional hotdogs. Do I personally think you should go out and eat hotdogs? No, not really. Unless you eat it without a bun, without condiments, and without the fried and/or sugary side. The hot dog itself is surprisingly the healthiest part of your standard hot dog order. Although I’m still uncertain about what a hotdog actually is.
To sum it up and keep it light-hearted, I’ll quote this article:
“So, hotdogs and processed meats are condemned as junk food because they contain nitrates, which they don’t, while vegetables are declared health food because they’re free from the same chemicals, which they’re not. It may be awhile before people will get to the point of calling bacon and hotdogs health food.”
All in all, there is no need to avoid nitrates and nitrites in processed meats. They account for such a low percentage in our diet, and, even so, have been shown to have benefits. Take a look at the list below if you’re still unsure.
If you are going to take out sausage and bacon from your diet to reduce nitrates and nitrites, than you may also want to reduce your vegetable intake! (please don’t).
Nitrate Levels in Vegetables:
Arugula: 4,677 ppm
Basil: 2,292 ppm
Butterhead Lettuce: 2,026 ppm
Beets: 1,279 ppm
Celery: 1,103 ppm
Spinach: 1,066 ppm
Pumpkin: 874 ppm
Processed Meat: 10 ppm
Bottom Line: the best thing you can do for your health is to buy the highest quality meats, as locally as possible. Just do the best you can. This post isn’t to make you feel good about your Jimmy Dean breakfast sausages, those (not sorry) do NOT have a place in a healthy diet. Getting to know your farmer and how the animals you eat have been treated is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. Acquiring food has become way too easy as more and more people are ordering, receiving, and eating food without ever leaving the couch. This disconnect from how our food is sourced is one of the biggest reasons we are seeing such a high level of disease. Do your best to reconnect with where your food comes from and you’ll find yourself eating better, and with ease!
Go check out your local Meat and/or Veggie CSA! For Missoula locals, my friend Jennifer at Mountain Meat Shares is the Farmer I recommend!