Nitrates and Nitrites


What about Nitrates and Nitrites? First, let’s provide a definition. Both are compounds consisting of a single nitrogen atom and oxygen atoms. Nitr-a-tes have 3 oxygen atoms, while Nitr-i-tes have 2 oxygen atoms. Nitrates are relatively harmless until they are turned into Nitrites by bacteria in the mouth or enzymes in the body.

Both compounds are found naturally in some foods (like vegetables) but are also added to processed foods (like bacon, hot dogs, ham, sausages and lunch meat) as a preservative which helps to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Additionally, nitrates and nitrites add a salty flavor and nitrites are the reason cured meat is pink or red. Without it, the meat would turn brown quickly.

Unfortunately, sodium nitrite has been strongly linked to causing cancer especially in the digestive tract and could increase your heart disease risk. Therefore it is recommended to limit your consumption of processed meats. Let’s examine what’s really going on.

Earlier I mentioned that nitrates can turn into nitrites. But what happens next is that nitrites can then form either Nitric Oxide (good) or Nitrosamines (bad). During high heat cooking, we encounter the nitrosamines. Apparently there are many different types of these compounds and most of them are potent carcinogens. The point here is that it’s the exposure to high heat that causes the reaction to take place and turns the nitrites into nitrosamines.

So now we need to understand what to do in order to minimize our exposure to nitrosamines. Well, you can simply limit your consumption of processed meats or you can buy brands labeled “no nitrates or nitrites”. You can buy local, or from a farmer’s market. If you shop at Whole Foods, look for bacon from pasture-raised pigs which should be much healthier than bacon from “conventionally” raised pigs.

Most importantly, if you just can’t live without an occasional piece of bacon, you can change the way you cook the bacon, hot dog, sausage, or ham. Frying at a lower heat for a longer time will produce less nitrosamines than a higher heat for a shorter amount of time. Burnt bacon is the worst. According to one study, cooking bacon in a microwave is the best way to minimize nitrosamine formation. So there is a way to include bacon in your diet but of course using frugal portions on all plates!


reference used: Authority Nutrition, An evidence-based approach.


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