What is sodium nitrate?

  • It is a natural salt.
  • Nitrate is a compound that is formed naturally when nitrogen combines with oxygen.
  • Sodium nitrates are found in soil, water, plants, and even our own bodies.

Why do we need preservatives

  • Preservatives help prevent the food from going bad and also prevents bacterial contamination.
  • Nitrates have been used to preserve packaged meats.
  • Nitrites are responsible for that red or pink color that we see in packaged meats otherwise, bacon would be brownish gray.

History of nitrate preservatives

  • Natural salts called sodium nitrates were used to preserve meats.
  • When sodium nitrate interacts with bacteria in our bodies it becomes sodium nitrite.
  • Today most manufacturers will add sodium nitrite directly to preserve the foods.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) first set an upper limit for nitrate in food in 1962
  • By 1978, the U.S. Assistant Agriculture Secretary for Food and Consumer Services ordered a reduction of nitrites in bacon due to a suspected link between the preservatives and cancer. Time Magazine

Why may nitrites be a problem?

  • Researchers discovered that when meat containing sodium nitrite is heated, it creates nitrosamines.
  • There is a concern that these compounds may cause cancer.

How are we exposed to sodium nitrate?

  • “Nitrate from fertilizer accumulates in vegetables and fruit, and large-scale livestock production yields huge amounts of manure rich in nitrate that seeps into groundwater.”  -American Journal of nutrition.
  • Drinking water is also a source of exposure, particularly well water from contaminated or shallow wells.

sodium nitrate in processed meat

What is a processed meat?

From the WHO,

  • “Processed meat refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.
  • Note, it may not be the sodium nitrate causing the increased risk of cancer, but there is an association between processed meats and cancer.


From the WHO,

  • “Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.”
  • “The experts concluded that each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”
  • “50g processed meat is equivalent to about 6 slices of bacon or one hot dog”. Harvard Health


Heart disease

  • There is no doubt that eating processed meats increase the risk of heart disease but it may not be the sodium nitrate in the processed meats causing the increased risk.

Type 2 Diabetes

  • According to the Harvard School of Public Health, eating processed meats containing sodium nitrate on a regular basis puts you at a 19 percent increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.


According to the CDC,

  • “high levels of nitrates in drinking water can be dangerous to health, especially for infants and pregnant women.”
  • “harmful byproduct of nitrites known as methemoglobin accumulates in the body and deprives the cells of oxygen.”
  • During pregnancy, it is common for methemoglobin levels of the pregnant woman to increase from normal (where 0.5 to 2.5% of the total hemoglobin is in the form of methemoglobin) to a maximum of 10% in the 30th week of pregnancy.
  • Reference CDC report nitrites https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/hac/pha/reports/pacificgaselectric_04222003ca/pdf/apph.pdf

Infants under 6 months and well water

  • Infants have relatively low acidity in their stomachs compared to adults. This allows for the growth of certain bacteria that readily convert nitrate to nitrite, which in turn causes methemoglobinemia.
  • In infants, this is commonly called Blue Baby Syndrome, because the lack of oxygen causes the baby’s skin to turn a bluish color, particularly around the eyes and mouth.
  • If untreated, infants can die from this condition. Do not use well water to make formula for infants under six months.
  • Do not drink well water if you are pregnant.
  • Do not boil the water to get rid of nitrate or nitrite. This will actually increase the concentration of chemicals in the water.

What can you do to avoid sodium nitrate?

  • “A good alternative is to replace red or processed meat with unprocessed, fresh chicken or turkey, which is a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Also to be considered are nuts, peanuts, soy, and legumes, such as hummus.
  • Minimize your exposure to synthetic fertilizers, which contribute to the nitrite content.”  Harvard Health
  • Eating a diet rich in antioxidants, such as vitamin C, will block the formation of harmful nitrosamines.

What about organic meat?

  • Processed meats made from so-called “organic meats” are generally treated with natural nitrate such as celery juice or smoked as well. At this point, there is insufficient data to conclude whether those meats are safer than the “non-organic” meats. Harvard health
  • The same goes for “nitrate-free” meats, they usually contain celery juice which has nitrates.
  • Celery juice has not been shown to be safer than sodium nitrite.

The argument that sodium nitrate is not a health risk

  • Nitrates are found in vegetables and vegetables have shown to decrease heart disease.
  • Nitrates may also help boost the immune system and protect against pathogenic bacteria.
  • Nitrogen is essential for all living things, they are needed to build protein.
  • We need nitrous oxide, it helps with blood pressure regulation.
  • Some researchers feel that nitrites improve cardiovascular health by widening blood vessels, lessening the risk of clots and stroke.
  • Nitrates can increase athletic performance.
  • Some health supplements such as beet juice contain nitrites.


More about nitrates http://nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/2258.pdf

American Journal of Nutrition http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/90/1/11.full

World Health Organization http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf

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