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Why All the Fuss About Nitrates and Nitrites?

In my house, we don’t eat a ton of cured or processed meats, like sausages, hot dogs, ham, and bacon. Every now and then, though, a little of it just sounds good. When I do prepare a dish with a processed meat, I try to purchase nitrate- and nitrite-free cured meats. Just the other day, though, I had a revelation: I don’t know why I’m avoiding nitrates and nitrites other than I’ve simply heard you should. 

Realizing that I was making purchasing choices without really understanding why, I decided to find out if my automatic choice was a valid one. Perhaps I was simply paying more for these nitrate- and nitrite-free meat products for no real reason.

What are nitrates and nitrites anyway?

According to Wikipedia, nitrates and nitrites are chemical compounds that contain—you guessed it—nitrogen, along with either three oxygen atoms (nitrates) or two oxygen atoms (nitrites). Nitrites are used to cure meat so that it lasts much longer. It also helps meats maintain the pink color we’re accustomed to seeing. 

Both compounds occur naturally in many foods, including fruits and vegetables. Livestrong lists many of my favorite vegetables as being high in nitrates—lettuce, spinach, beets, celery, and the list goes on. It also lists some of my favorite fruits, like strawberries, raspberries, and cherries, among others. 

So are nitrates and nitrites bad for you?

If nitrates and nitrites occur naturally, it seems like they should be good for us. It turns out that whether they’re good or bad for you depends. And by the way, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’re pretty much off the hook for worrying about this issue. The nitrates and nitrites in fruit and vegetables are rarely bad for you.  

Authority Nutrition explains that nitrates are pretty harmless at reasonable levels. The only exception is for babies up to around 6 months of age. After that point, verywell says that nitrates are not as big a concern because a baby’s stomach acids have developed enough. 

When we eat nitrates, bacteria in our mouth and enzymes in our body can cause nitrate to lose an oxygen atom and become nitrite. Nitrite is the form that can go in a couple of directions: it can lose another oxygen atom and become nitric oxide, but can also transform into nitrosamine. 

Nitric oxide is no problem. In fact, it can cause blood vessels to relax, which can be good for lowering blood pressure. Some athletes actually eat beets or drink beet juice, both high in nitrates, because it converts to nitrite and nitric oxide, which seem to increase the amount of time an athlete can exercise before feeling exhausted. Back in 2012, Self.com noted that many Olympians were beet juice converts for this very reason. 

Nitrosamine, on the other hand, can be a problem. Nitrosamines come in several forms, and are fairly carcinogenic. Nitrosamines occur when nitrites are heated to high temperatures and when amino acids are present (the body requires amino acids to build protein in your body, according to Chem4kids.com). You’re probably thinking exactly what I’m thinking right now. Bacon is bad for me. After all, you have to cook it at a relatively high temperature, and it has protein in it. 

Ways to avoid nitrosamines

It turns out it’s not quite as bad as all that. You can fairly easily reduce the formation nitrosamines by simply cooking your bacon or other processed meats at a lower temperature. It may take longer, but it’s better for you. Plus, when you do decide to eat processed meats, look for, and pay the price for, nitrate- and nitrite-free products. 

While I do love bacon, I typically use it to add a little flavor to a mostly vegetable-based dish or salad—like my Baked Avocado with Egg and Bacon recipe. It’s delicious without bacon, but adding bacon (turkey bacon in this case) gives it just that little extra something that takes it to perfection.