Nitrates and Nitrites, What?Chemically speaking, Nitrates (NO3) and Nitrites (NO2) are from the same chemical compound family. They both also occur naturally in our food and water supply, and our body does need them to function properly. Nitrates are used mainly to make fertilizer, explosives and glass while nitrites are used mainly as a preservative in foods. However, these two naturally occurring chemicals, when used in excess have very dangerous side effects.
To explain this effectively I need to break down some facts. While I know this list may seem long. It is worth reading all the way down the page, otherwise you will only get part of the information:
- For hundreds of years humans have used nitrates to preserve fish, meats and cheeses to prevent botulism and maintain microbial safety. Additionally it gave cured meats a pleasing pink – red color and “smoky” flavor making it easier to sell. Nitrates, once added to meat, would break down over a period of time, forming nitrites; eventually, it became easier just to add the nitrates, in the form of sodium nitrite, directly to the meats to speed up the curing process.
- The availability to better refrigeration around the 1930’s reduced the need for sodium nitrite in meats and fish. At this time many manufacturers started to use less sodium nitrite, however the practice of use continued as the flavor and color of the meats were more popular than without it. It is important to note here that gastric cancers killed more Americans than any other cancer combined prior to 1930. Then with the advances in refrigeration and the reduction of sodium nitrates in the American diet, the incidents of gastric cancers reduced. There is no hard evidence to support this theory, but it was worth noting the coincidence.
- The danger from nitrates and nitrites comes from the chemical reaction the nitrates have when combined with protein in an acidic environment (the stomach) or heated to a certain temperature as in frying bacon. At this time the nitrate/nitrite combine with the amino acids in the meat and form N-nitrosamines a carcinogenic compound believed to cause cancer. Vitamins C, D and E are known for inhibiting the conversion of nitrites to nitrosamines in the stomach. For this reason, some cured meat manufactures add vitamin C and lactic acid to their products, but not all. Also, here is a tip, drink a glass of orange juice when you are having bacon with breakfast.
- The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) conducted a study linking nitrates to colon cancer. The study concluded that “an occasional hot dog at a ball game, or a slice of ham at Easter, will not cause colon cancer”; however processed meats as part of the everyday diet “poses clear and serious risks”. That is why AICR now recommends avoiding hot dogs, sausages, bacon, ham, cold cuts and other processed meats.
- While nitrates and nitrites will prevent the growth of bacteria, it can be toxic for mammals when consumed in excessive quantities. Infants and children are especially vulnerable to nitrite poisoning. According to the Environmental Health Investigations Branch, “one of the problems with ingesting nitrates/nitrites is that it can cause the hemoglobin in blood to change to Met hemoglobin, and this reduces the bloods ability to carry oxygen.” With infants, the inability to carry the oxygen through the blood can cause what is known as "Blue Baby Syndrome" which has been known to cause brain damage and death. Adults can experience symptoms like dizziness, headaches, irritability and blue tones around the eyes, mouth, hands and feet. Infants and children typically ingest these dangerous levels of nitrates/nitrites through contaminated well water, where nitrate rich fertilizers have leeched into the drinking water supply. If ever there was a reason to consider organic farming, this is a really good one.
- The carcinogenic compound, N- nitrosamines have been associated with cancer of the oral cavity, urinary bladder, esophagus, stomach and brain as well as child leukemia, the COPD form of lung disease and migraines. According to one study, “children eating more than 12 hot dogs per month have nine times the normal risk of developing childhood leukemia.” Some studies even indicate that parents, even the dads, looking to conceive or are pregnant should also avoid hotdogs as it has an adverse effect on the fetus’ development.
Nitrates/Nitrites are not all bad.
- Some vegetables contain nitrites, especially green vegetables like spinach, salad greens and celery. These are not cancer causing. As a matter of fact the vitamin C and D in these vegetables inhibits the formation of the N-nitrosamines. Consequently, vegetables containing normal levels of nitrates are quite safe and even help reduce the risk of cancer. These vegetables are best grown organically and not with the use of high nitrate fertilizers which will obvious increase their levels of nitrates and make them taste bitter.
- Our body definitely needs these compounds in moderation. Nitrates are secreted back into your saliva after you absorb them. The nitrates in your saliva kill the germs in your mouth and prevent mouth odor and infections.
- Recently, sodium nitrite was found to be effective as a means to increase blood flow by dilating blood vessels, acting as a vasodilator. There is continuing research to investigate its usefulness towards treatments for sickle cell anemia, cyanide poisoning, heart attacks, brain aneurysms, and pulmonary hypertension in infants.
- Researchers advise that food containing nitrates should not be eliminated all together from our diets. "This is a very significant finding given the fact that simple components of our diet - nitrite and nitrate - that we have been taught to fear and restrict in food can now protect the heart from injury. Simple changes in our daily dietary habits such as eating nitrite and nitrate rich foods such as fruits and vegetables and some meats in moderation can drastically improve outcome following a heart attack," said Nathan S. Bryan, Ph.D., an assistant professor at UT-Houston's Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases.
So here is my personal advice:
- Buy lunch meats, bacon, hot dogs and sausages that are nitrate free whenever possible. There are some great brands out there to choose from.
- Don’t sweat it if you have the occasional salami, ham, sausage or hot dog while dining out or at a BBQ. Try to eat something high in vitamin C if you can. Remember it is all about the balance.
- Contact your Unified School District and ask them not to serve processed lunch meats like hot dogs and cold cuts more than twice per month. Not at all would be better, but sometimes it is better to compromise and then you can avoid buying hot lunch for your child on those days. If that doesn’t work, start a campaign at your school to boycott hot lunch on the days they serve processed lunchmeats.
- If you have concerns about your child’s headaches, or HDAD or social behavior and you suspect it is due to too many nitrates in his/her diet, please consult your pediatrician and ask for some advice or to see a nutritionist.