Nitrites and nitrates are compounds that are found naturally in food like vegetables and can also be added to processed foods like bacon and sausages to act as a preservative.
To get a better knowledge of these compounds, we need some basic knowledge of chemistry. A Nitrate compound contains one Nitrogen and three oxygen atoms while nitrite contains one Nitrogen and two oxygen atoms. Nitrates are normally inactive until they are converted by bacteria to nitrites, which can be converted to either nitric oxide or nitrosamines.
WHAT DO NITRATES AND NITRITE DO?
Ever seen meat with red or pink color? It is as a result of the addition of nitrites and nitrates, plus it gives the meat that salty flavor. Vegetables are by far the biggest and healthiest source of nitrates, very large compared to the one that comes from processed meat.
Our bodies also secrete large quantities of nitrates in our saliva and circulate from there to the digestive system and back in a process called Entero-salivary circulation. It acts as antimicrobials that kill pathogenic bacteria in the digestive system.
When nitrite loses oxygen, it is converted to nitric oxide that has a short life span as a gas that functions as a signaling molecule. This is a very important feature as it helps to dilate our vessels and lower blood pressure. It is also very helpful for athletes as the beetroot juices they take for energy are very high in nitrates.
There are a lot of controversies surrounding nitrates and nitrites. Some studies show that they are harmful and can somehow lead to cancer, others believe that it is healthy. So what really is the truth?
WHY NITRITES AND NITRATES ARE CONSIDERED TO BE UNHEALTHY
When they turn to nitrosamines, the dark side of it shows. Nitrites turn to compounds called nitrosamines when they are in the presence of amino acids and are exposed to intense heat. There are several types of nitrosamines, and most of them are very deadly carcinogens, the type found in tobacco smoke.
This is the reason it is advised to lower the intake of processed meat. Most hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats have high sodium nitrite and protein content, creating the right environment for nitrosamines to form. This deadly compound can also form acidic conditions in the body, especially the stomach.
One way to limit this is to add Vitamin C during the cooking of processed meat as it helps to prevent nitrosamine from forming. But that doesn’t remove all the risk of ingesting nitrosamine.
Also, it can be found in the drinking water in some areas which is a big problem for infants and children under six, as they cannot process nitrates the way adults can. This can ultimately lead to a blood disorder called methemoglobinemia.
Symptoms of overexposure to nitrates and nitrites are bluish skin, difficulty in breathing, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, etc.
HOW TO IDENTIFY NITRITES AND NITRATES ON PRODUCT LABELS
It’s important that consumers look at the labels of products that list sodium and potassium nitrates and nitrites as one of its ingredients. Some grocery stores carry meat that is free of nitrites and will say so on the label. You’ll be certain to find these varieties from grocery store chains such as Whole Foods and Trader Joes.
Moderation in use and under the right conditions is very important. Although medical research has not reported anything serious with these compounds, caution should be taken when using products containing it.