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© 2017 Vancouver Dietitians

Blog & Recipes

  • by Stephanie Dang, Alexandra Inman

The Truth About Nitrates & Nitrites


Before you think we're going to tell you that you can't eat bacon, relax. That's not the case! But, there is a lot of discussion around nitrates, nitrites, and nitrosamines, especially regarding processed meats (such as bacon and deli meats). It can be difficult to decipher fact from fiction when it comes to these topics! So, what are these three compounds, and are they actually harmful? Let’s find out! First, let’s clarify the differences between them: Nitrates are found naturally in foods such as spinach, arugula, lettuce, swiss chard, beets, and carrots. Nitrates can be converted to nitric oxide, which is a vasodilator (helps with blood flow). Nitrites are an approved food additive to things like cured meats and bacon to add colour and improve shelf life. Nitrites can be converted into nitrosamines under certain conditions. Nitrosamines are a chemical found in tobacco products, as well as in food products such as bacon, cured meats, and beer. Some nitrosamines have been found to cause cancer in animals, and may increase the risk of cancer in humans. There is strong evidence supporting an increased risk of colon cancer with diets high in processed meats (bacon, salami, cured meats). However, we're not sure whether this is because of the added nitrites in the meats, or other compounds. The cancer-causing effects may not come from the nitrites themselves, but instead from their converted form - nitrosamines. When we eat foods containing nitrites, they can be converted to nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are one of the cancer-causing compounds found in cigarette smoke, and also found in processed meats. However, the presence of phytonutrients in plant foods (example: Vitamin C) prevent nitrosamines from forming. Does this mean having kale with your bacon will stop nitrosamine formation? Probably not entirely, but more research needs to be done. Summary: added nitrites in processed meats may be converted to nitrosamines in our body in the absence of plant-based phytonutrients (ex. Vitamin C). These nitrosamines may have cancer-causing effects.

To complicate things just a little more, there are also claims that nitrates and nitrites are beneficial for health. Confusing right? Some evidence suggests that it is beneficial when dietary nitrates are converted to nitric oxide. The benefits of nitric oxide may include improving heart health, lowering blood pressure, and even helping with athletic performance. This is because nitric oxide is a vasodilator, which increases blood flow and oxygen supply. It's important to note that these benefits have only been seen with plant-based sources of nitrates like spinach, arugula, lettuce, beets and carrots.

Summary: nitrates found in plant foods can be converted to nitric oxide, which may have health benefits like improving heart health, lowering blood pressure, and improving athletic performance. Good news is nitrites and nitrosamines are not found in all meats, just in processed or cured meat where nitrites have been purposefully added. If you do include animal products in your diet, we recommend you limit processed and cured meats, and instead enjoy unprocessed, sustainably raised meat in moderation.


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