Nitrates and Nitrites Debate
Nitrates and nitrites in meats are still a topic of debate. Nitrites give cured meat like ham and bacon their pink color and sharp flavor. When added to meat, nitrates break down into nitrites.
Nitrates can be digested by the body and removed as waste with no harmful effects. But nitrates can be converted to nitrites in the stomach. This is especially true if the pH of the gastric fluid is high. And these nitrites can react with food proteins to form cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines.
Several studies link the consumption of nitrates and nitrites and cured meat with certain cancers. They are also linked to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, though there has been conflicting evidence.
Natural and organic meats cured with ingredients such as sea salt, raw sugar and celery juice attract consumers concerned about chemical preservatives. These ingredients may be listed as natural flavoring on labels. However, plant products can contribute to nitrate content, as well.
Now findings show that nitrates found in plant foods may not be harmful at all. In fact, when they occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, they may even have heart health benefits. (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). Scientists have yet to understand why the body might process plant nitrates differently than those found in meats.
The debate regarding the potential health threat of nitrates and nitrates continues and scientists call for more research to understand the risks. Still, it’s not a bad idea to keep your nitrates and nitrites intake from cured meats to a minimum. These foods tend to be high in sodium and saturated fat anyway.
But there’s no reason to shy away from fruits and vegetables!