What are nitrates?
Nitrates and nitrites are preservatives frequently found in preserved meats such as deli meats, hot dogs, sausages, etc. Nitrates are seen as the less harmful of the two, however, they can turn into nitrites which are linked to more serious health concerns.
Nitrites help keep the meats looking pink and can prevent the growth of listeria or botulinum bacterias. Unfortunately, however, consuming high amounts of nitrates and nitrites can be bad for your health. And nitrites can further degrade into nitrosamines (which are highly carcinogenic) when exposed to the amino acids in the stomach.
Health impact of nitrates
Studies have shown that people who eat a lot of processed meats tend to have a higher than average risk for cancer including pancreatic and gastrointestinal cancers. Other studies indicate a link between nitrosamines and diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and liver disease. So even if you’re not highly sensitive to nitrates, consuming a lot of them is not a good idea.
“No nitrates” on the label
Sometimes you’ll see labels that say “no nitrates.” You may be wondering how they’re preserving the food. The answer is they’re still using nitrates, they’re just using a different form, usually celery juice or celery salts.
This is a case of manufacturer manipulation. Because of what these food/based nitrates are, the current FDA rules allow for the product to be labeled either No Nitrates or No Added Nitrates. (Similar to how they allow certain glutamate-rich products to be labeled no added MSG).
Because of consumer demand for cleaner labeling, some food producers are choosing to manufacture with these food-based nitrates. They then use Front-of-Package terminology to lure consumers to their products. However, some people are very sensitive to nitrates, even the food-based ones. So once again it comes down to reading the ingredient panel and knowing what’s in what you are eating.
Symptoms of allergy or sensitivity
The symptoms of nitrate sensitivity include headaches, sinus issues, stuffy nose, sneezing, runny nose, itching, hives, or asthma. It can be difficult to pick out if it’s specifically due to nitrates as these symptoms can be found with other ingredients as well.
If you think you are sensitive you can check with a doctor for an allergy test. You can also do an elimination diet and avoid all sources of nitrates. Those added to the food, as well as the vegetable-based sources listed below. When doing an elimination diet it’s important to keep a food journal so you can closely track your symptoms in relation to the food you are consuming.
Food sources of nitrates
High nitrate vegetable sources include:
- Collard Greens
- Green beans
Plus, when these ingredients are juiced, the longer they sit the more the nitrates convert to nitrites. So if you make juice that includes these kinds of vegetables, it’s best to drink it right away rather than letting it sit.
If you’re looking to consume low nitrate vegetables, these are:
- Broad Beans
- Green beans
- Summer Squash
- Sweet Potatoes
It’s also important to know that industrial fertilizers are high in nitrates. This means that commercially grown crops tend to have higher levels. In other words, the more nitrate-rich the soil they are grown in, the higher the nitrate level in these vegetables.Sources
- Hord N.G., Conley M.N. (2017) Regulation of Dietary Nitrate and Nitrite: Balancing Essential Physiological Roles with Potential Health Risks. In: Bryan N., Loscalzo J. (eds) Nitrite and Nitrate in Human Health and Disease. Nutrition and Health. Humana Press, Cham.
- Nothlings, Ute, et al. Meat and Fat Intake as Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer: The Multiethnic Cohort Study. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Vol. 97, No. 19. October 5, 2005.
- Tong, M, et al. Nitrosamine Exposure Causes Insulin Resistance Diseases: Relevance to Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis, and Alzheimer’s Disease. J Alzheimers Dis. 2009; 17(4): 827–844.
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