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You Ask, I Answer: Nitrates, Nitrites… and then Some!

Posted Nov 13 2009 10:00pm

Cold cutslarge A recent post on cured meats, cancer risk, and nitrates sparked a significant number of comments and personal e-mails.

Alas, here is a compilation of all the questions I received on the subject — and the appropriate answers.

What are nitrates?

Although they can be manufactured in laboratories (mainly to cure meats), nitrates are a type of inorganic (jargon for “carbon-free”) chemical found in nature.

Fertilizers and sewerage contain significant amounts of nitrates (they contain high amounts of nitrogen, which bacteria feast on and, among other things, convert into nitrates).

Is there a difference between nitrates and nitrites?

Not really.  Most food manufacturers prefer nitrites because they present fewer complications from a processing standpoint.

It’s akin to asking if there is a significant difference, nutritionally speaking, between the artificial sweeteners Splenda and aspartame.  Although their makeup is different, they are used in similar ways.

Are nitrates only found in cold cuts?

No.  Certain vegetables — including spinach, celery, lettuce, and eggplant — contain nitrates.

So, then, why do we only hear about nitrates and cold cuts?

For two reasons.  One: cold cuts contain higher amounts of nitrates/nitrites than vegetables.

Number two: the average American consumes more cold cuts than celery, spinach, or eggplant.

What are the health risks of consuming too many nitrates?

This is where it all gets interesting — and slightly complicated.

A large portion of nitrates are converted into nitrites by our bodies.

Obviously, if you consume ham that contains nitrites, this first step is a moot point.

Nitrites can then combine with particular compounds known as amines in the stomach.

This combination forms a new hybrid compound: nitrosamines.

Due to the cellular damage they cause, nitrosamines have been linked with higher risks of a wide array of cancers — particularly that of the prostate, colon, and pancreas.

Earlier this summer, a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease concluded that frequent consumption of nitrates and nitrites relates to higher risks of developing the neural disorder.

Some research also suggests that when nitrites in food are exposed to high heat — as they are, say, when you fry bacon — their chemical structure morphs into that of nitrosamines.

PS: Another reason why you don’t hear much about nitrites in vegetables?  All nitrate-containing vegetables also provide vitamin C, which has been shown to reduce the formation of nitrosamines in the body.

Are there any guidelines for what amount of nitrates is safe to consume?

The Environmental Protection Agency has come up with a “parts per million” guideline in reference to the water supply, but there is no exact amount in regards to food.

The general idea with cold cuts is: the less, the better.  Conservative guidelines recommend no more than two ounces per week, while more liberal recommendations place the limit at six ounces per week.

Since vitamins C and E appear to reduce nitrite-to-nitrosamine conversion, one “safety measure” you can always take is to include a food high in either of those nutrients in a meal that contains processed meats.

For example, add plenty of sliced tomatoes to a ham sandwich, or make bacon the accompaniment to a broccoli and red pepper frittata.

Do organic cold cuts contain nitrites?

Some of them don’t.  As with everything else, it’s always good to check the ingredient list.

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