Are Nitrates Bad for You? A 2-Sided Question

Are Nitrates Bad for You?
Are Nitrates Bad for You?

Are nitrates bad for you?

Not necessarily. But they have the misfortune to sometimes change into a form with definite Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies.

Lets’ begin with my recent posts. If you’ve been reading them, it’s no secret that I’ve been starting every day downing handfuls of whatever greens we have on hand.

That ended this morning when I opened the fridge and found NO greens!

But thanks to my wife, I found the next-best thing: broccoli sprouts. She read my instructions from last week on how to grow them, and there they were for me to enjoy!

Not quite leafy greens, but still a great source of muscle-strengthening nitrates.

Last week, I also wrote about a study on nitrates. Its participants eating the most leafy greens exhibited 11 percent greater muscle strength and 4 percent faster response times.

However, the study’s title made no mention of vegetables. Its emphasis was on nitrates: Dietary Nitrate Intake Is Positively Associated with Muscle Function in Men and Women Independent of Physical Activity Levels. 

Nitrates Vs. Nitrites: What a Difference One Atom Can Make!

The emphasis on nitrites confused some readers. They read one article saying nitrates are good for our health, and then another article that questions – Are nitrates bad for you? One commented that he would start filling up on hot dogs since they also have nitrites.

Nitrates au naturel. (Are Nitrates Bad for You?)
Nitrates au naturel.

Such confusion is common when we pay too much attention to isolated compounds. All the compounds in a particular fruit or vegetable work best as a team, the way Nature intended! 

Isolating specific nutrients separates them from their natural team. Sometimes the results are positive; turmeric’s principal active ingredient, curcumin, is one example.

Often, however, the effects can turn dangerous. Take nitrites.

When we get them by eating whole vegetables, nitrites are very beneficial. But isolating them for use as preservatives in processed meats (including hot dogs) turns them into carcinogens.

A Jekyll and Hyde transformation!

To make things more confusing, similar-sounding nitrites and nitrates have different molecular structures.

  • A nitrate (NO3) molecule has one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms.
  • A nitrite (NO2) has one nitrogen and two oxygen atoms.

Both nitrogen and oxygen occur naturally in soil and water. Vegetables absorb both, but they get most of them in nitrate form (NO3).

The Jekyll and Hyde Sides of Nitrites

However, as soon as we bite into a vegetable, the bacteria in our saliva convert the nitrates into nitrites (NO2). The next step is critical to answering the question, “Are nitrates bad for you?”

The nitrites undergo another change. But whether or not the transformation is beneficial or dangerous depends on what other compounds are traveling with them through our bodies.

  • Nitrites traveling with plant-based ingredients change into simple nitric acid (NO), which improves arterial function and muscular strength.
  • Nitrites traveling with animal-based products combine with animes to form dangerous nitrosamines. Heat makes this reaction even more pronounced.
Toxic nitrite bombs. (Are Nitrates Bad for You?)
Toxic nitrite bombs.

Animal-based foods containing ammonia-related animes include:

  • cooked bacon
  • cured meats
  • fish (sometimes)
  • cheeses
  • nonfat dry milk
  • beer

These food have nitrites added because nitrites reduce bacteria, so the FDA has approved their use as food preservatives.

That said, in 1978 (the year I was born), the Washington Post was already reporting that for years scientists had expressed concerns about “sodium nitrite’s possible role in causing cancer.” 

The FDA almost rescinded their approval, but the meat industry won that fight.

Nitrites are natural compounds. They can become toxic only when removed from their natural environment and added to meat.

So toxic, in fact, that processed meat now shares an International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC) Level 1 carcinogen designation with asbestos and smoking. Yet most people go about their business oblivious to the fact that they’re eating cancer-causing foods!

In 1998, the year I turned 20, three doctors shared a Nobel Prize for discovering nitric oxide’s (NO) role in the cardiovascular system. The Nobel Prize description noted, “Nitric oxide protects the heart, stimulates the brain, kills bacteria, etc.

Just as impressive is plant phytonutrients’ ability to block nitrosamine formation, even in the presence of animes.

The final answer to the question “Are nitrates bad for you?”

When nitrates turn into nitrites, they can travel two divergent paths leading to vastly different outcomes. Nitrites added to meat pose a significant health risk.

But when obtained naturally from whole plant foods, they’re some of our arteries’ and muscles’ best friends!

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