What are nitrates and are they bad for health?

Chard leaf on a red background

Chard leaf on a red background

Getty Images / Jay B Sauceda

Nitrates in cured meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, and cured meats, have long had a bad rap, but more recently there has been a lot of talk about the health benefits of nitrates in beets and other vegetables. Confused? Yes. But we will fix everything for you.

Related: Are untreated hot dogs healthier?

What are nitrates?

Nitrates are compounds made up of nitrogen and oxygen. Most come from plants, such as green leafy vegetables, beets, and celery. They are also added to processed meats, in the form of sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite, as a preservative or to enhance its flavor, color and texture.

Potential Benefits of Nitrates

When we eat nitrates from plants, our body converts them into nitric oxide, which has been shown to have a number of benefits, such as regulating blood pressure and improving circulation. This, in turn, can boost both heart health and athletic performance. For example, a 2021 study found that active adult men who received nitrates derived from beet juice increased their muscle strength. Another study showed that consuming at least 60 milligrams of nitrates from vegetables per day (roughly what you get from 1 cup of raw green leafy vegetables) can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease. Additionally, nitrate-rich plants provide “many other health-promoting nutrients, including antioxidants and potential anti-inflammatory compounds,” explains New York City culinary nutritionist Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN.

Potential disadvantage of nitrates

So why are they a good thing in beets but not bacon? In processed meat products, nitrates can combine with protein amino acids and form nitrosamines, which have been associated with an increased risk of some cancers. A World Health Organization report found that every 50-gram serving of processed meat a person ate per day (or about 5 slices of bacon) increased their chances of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. The evidence was strong enough that WHO classifies these foods as group 1 carcinogens, the same designation as tobacco.

Consuming lots of vitamin C and other antioxidant-rich foods can help block nitrosamine production and offset the potentially negative effects of processed meats, explains Melina Jampolis, MD, a Los Angeles-certified internist and nutrition specialist. For this very reason, manufacturers are starting to add vitamin C to cured meats. High heat can also contribute to nitrosamine formation, so Jampolis recommends cooking processed meats at lower temperatures. (For example, microwaving bacon might be better than frying it, according to some research.) But your best bet is to simply cut back on the amount you eat. And this also applies to foods labeled as “natural” or “nitrate-free”. Studies show that converting nitrates to nitrosamines can happen regardless of whether they are organic or synthetic, so the “natural” hot dog may no longer be healthy for you. As for products that boast “no added nitrates,” Jampolis says these are often made with celery powder, which contains natural nitrates and can still produce nitrosamines (although it’s not considered an added nitrate).

The bottom line

Nitrates from plants and nitrates added to meat behave very differently in the body. Increasing the consumption of nitrate-rich vegetables can lower blood pressure and improve athletic performance. But it’s best to limit your intake of processed meats (even “natural” and “nitrate-free” products), which are associated with an increased risk of cancer.

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