Fact or Myth: Do Nitrites/ Nitrates in Food Cause Cancer?

This is a MYTH.

For the most part. The controversy over sodium nitrites and sodium nitrates in food is ongoing. Documents issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classify these chemicals as safe depending on amounts ingested. “Normal” ingestion, says the American Medical Association, is not cancer-causing.

What Are Nitrates and Nitrites?

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are food preservatives. Though they are close in chemical composition, they have different effects on the human body.

Both are used to extend the shelf life and color of processed meats such as bacon, lunch meat, hot dogs and pepperoni. nitrates in food

Nitrates and nitrites are also found in our soil, water and food.

Researchers believe we may be ingesting much higher amounts of nitrates and nitrites than we realize. With the increase in agricultural production and the use of fertilizer, as well as the continually growing cattle industry, nitrites and nitrates in food are re-entering the environment at higher levels than ever before.

Streams, lakes and private wells are subjected to a substantial increase in nitrates/nitrites after rainfall and the consequent run-off.

Nitrate is converted by bacteria into nitrite. In the human body, saliva converts about 5% of ingested nitrate into nitrite, and gastric fluid in the stomach converts a bit more.

Infants who breastfeed or are given formula made with water from a private well can develop adverse effects from too much nitrate, inhibiting oxygen transport in the blood. This is referred to as “blue baby” syndrome, or methemoglobinemia.

Additionally, nitrate-cured meats contain the necessary ingredients to stimulate the formation of nitrosamines. Cooking processed meat at high heat creates this compound, which has proven carcinogenic in laboratory animals. However, the evidence in human trials has thus far been inconclusive.

How Do They Work?

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite prevent bacteria from growing on food. The process it uses to do this is oxidation – breaking apart the molecules of bacteria to block growth. Without a counteraction, oxidation results in the production of free radicals that attack healthy molecules in your body.

Nitrites have been used for centuries to preserve meat, so the fact that there is so little long-term data about the effects on the human body is perplexing.

Balance Nitrate/Nitrite Intake with Antioxidants

Here is where it gets interesting: because nitrates and nitrites are found in our soil and water, nitrites and nitrates in food are in the majority of our fruits and vegetables. In fact, 70-80% of our nitrate/nitrite consumption comes from produce!

Why aren’t people who consume high quantities of fruit and vegetables in severe oxidative stress? Because antioxidant-rich produce contains agents that counteract the nitrates and nitrites they contain – especially vitamin C and vitamin E.

In other words, the vitamins and minerals neutralize the oxidation properties of nitrates and nitrites – not to mention adding antioxidant protection to the rest of your cells.

What Does This Mean For Your Diet?

If you do consume high nitrite/nitrates in food, make sure you include fruits and vegetables that have powerful antioxidant effects to counteract the oxidation.

They will not only prevent damage to your healthy cells due free radical attack, but will also boost your total body wellness at the same time.

So if your next salad includes diced ham, then add spinach and tomatoes to the mix, and drink a large glass of orange juice the next time you sit down to a plate of bacon and eggs. And when you build that BLT? Go heavy on the “Tomato”.