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What Exactly Are “Nitrates” and Are They Bad for You?

Here at 310, we’re all about gathering feedback and hearing from the 310 Community so we can provide answers to your questions and pressing concerns! And one of the topics you’ve asked us about is nitrates

If you’ve heard about nitrates, chances are you’ve heard that they exist in processed meats like bacon or ham. And you’re not wrong! But chances are that you’ve also read about their potentially harmful effects on your health. 

But what exactly are nitrates, what foods contain them, and are they as bad for you as some people say? 

Read on to find out…

What Are Nitrates?

Nitrates are naturally occurring chemical compounds that contain nitrogen and oxygen molecules. (1) Most people hear about nitrates in cured or processed meats like bacon or ham. And that’s because nitrates are preservatives that can protect meats from harmful bacteria while adding both flavor and coloring. (2,3,4)

But even though nitrates are often associated with meat, that isn’t the only food that contains them! Over 80% of nitrate intake comes from leafy green vegetables like spinach, celery, and beetroot. (2,3

These vegetables are a natural source of nitrates, unlike processed meats, because they pick up nitrates from the soil they grow in. And depending on where you live, your drinking water might also be a major source of nitrates. (2,4)

Are Nitrates Bad for You?

From meats to leafy greens to drinking water, chances are you’re taking in quite a bit of nitrates. For the average American, that’s around 75 to 100 mg of nitrates per day. (1) But for all the nitrates you’re consuming, 60-70% of them get excreted through your urine. The rest enters your circulatory system. (4)

But is that remaining 30-40% good for you, or bad for your health? This topic is one of great controversy in the scientific community because we need more research to get to the bottom of it. But the answer we have today lies mainly in the discussion of nitrates vs. nitrites and added vs. naturally occurring nitrate sources

Let’s dive into those…

Nitrates vs. Nitrites

Nitrates are not harmful on their own. After all, they’re naturally occurring in the environment we live in like soil, water, and plants. But a lot of the controversy surrounding nitrates and their possible harmful effects comes from the digestion and cooking process. (3)

As the bacteria in your mouth and gut break down the nitrates from your leafy greens or cured meats, it forms another similar chemical compound called nitrites. Like nitrates, nitrites are chemical compounds containing nitrogen and oxygen. The major difference is that nitrates have three oxygen atoms while nitrites have only two. (1,2

Nitrites also aren’t harmful on their own. But things get problematic when you expose nitrites to proteins or amino acids—especially when that exposure happens in high heat or acidic environments. Like frying your bacon in a hot pan! This mixes nitrites with amino acids which could lead to the creation of nitrosamines, a cancer-causing compound. (2)

Cooked sizzling hot crispy bacon on a skillet and scrambled eggs ready for breakfast

So although the nitrates in your cured meat are identical to the nitrates found in your leafy greens, the health risks could be much higher with your bacon or ham versus your salad. (2

Added vs. Naturally Occurring Nitrates

That’s not to say that frying bacon is a one-way ticket to major health concerns. But rather your risk increases with added nitrates (or high-protein processed meats) versus a more naturally occurring nitrate source like leafy greens, which are low in protein. 

That’s not only because of a difference in protein content but also the difference in the quality of added vs. naturally occurring nitrate sources. Leafy greens, like the spinach in your salad, for example, contain health-boosting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants like vitamin C, fiber, and polyphenols. These nutrients can actually help counteract or weaken nitrosamine production. (2,3)

And some suggest that naturally occurring nitrates could actually help protect your body from chronic health conditions. This is thanks to nitric oxide, a byproduct of nitrates that comes from vegetables. Nitric oxide has a protective effect on the body, promoting better balance and cardiovascular health. (1,2,3

While your body can produce nitric oxide through the amino acid arginine, this process declines as you age. Which makes the consumption of high-nitrate leafy greens even more important over the course of your life. (2)

Foods High in Nitrates

Thanks to these reasons, naturally occurring nitrate sources tend to be the healthier choice. Plus, not to mention the high levels of saturated fat and sodium you’ll find in your processed meats!

But when talking about added vs. naturally occurring nitrate sources you might be wondering: what foods are high in nitrates?

Here are foods with the highest levels of added nitrates that you want to enjoy in moderation: (1)

  • Ham
  • Bacon
  • Deli meat slices
  • Bologna 
  • Hot dogs 

*You don’t want your meat growing unwanted bacteria, so the use of nitrates in the above food sources is important. But given the negative attention that nitrates are getting, a lot of companies are starting to use more natural sources of nitrates like celery juice, beetroot, or spinach extract as a healthier nitrate alternative! (4)

Arrangement of deli cold cuts on a wooden plate with ham, cheese, pepperoni, and salami

And these are foods with the highest levels of naturally occurring nitrates: (1,2)

  • Spinach (and other leafy greens)
  • Bok choy
  • Lettuce
  • Beetroot
  • Celery
  • Carrots

Keep in mind that the “risk” of consuming added nitrates is really small. (2) Eating ham or bacon in moderation is not inherently dangerous. But it’s a good idea to reduce your intake, especially if they are a regular part of your daily diet. That way you limit any possible health risks associated with these foods. 

That’s why we recommend swapping in more of the naturally occurring nitrate sources mentioned above instead!

Various green leafy vegetables on rustic wooden table

Shakes: A Great Source of "Good" Nitrates 

Now that you know some of the best sources of healthy nitrates, toss those veggies into your meal replacement shake smoothies! 

Here are some super delicious recipes we highly recommend to help you squeeze in some health-promoting nitrates in a fast and easy way:

Nitrates: The Big Takeaway

In summary, nitrates aren’t all bad news! Your body needs nitrates for the production of healthy nitric oxide. But opt for naturally occurring nitrate sources as much as possible, like spinach or beets. Not only can they supply your body with nitric oxide, but they also have other health-boosting properties. 

And while the risk is small, added nitrate sources like deli meats or bacon are best to enjoy only in moderation. Not only can they produce nitrosamines, but they’re also often high in unhealthy fats and packed with sodium

So, if your goal is to maintain or embark on a healthier diet, opt for a healthy variety of fruits and vegetables while limiting your processed meat intake! That way you can reap all the benefits of nitrates, while avoiding the possible downsides. 



Sources:

  1. https://www.webmd.com/diet/foods-high-in-nitrates
  2. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190311-what-are-nitrates-in-food-side-effects
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6147587/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7139399/
Written by:

Megan Elizabeth Clark

310 Nutrition Content Writer 

Megan Elizabeth Clark is a freelance copywriter and content marketing specialist in the health, wellness, and fitness industry. As a NASM certified personal trainer and RYT-200 certified yoga instructor Megan is passionate about using her fitness background and writing skills to provide authentic, actionable, and accurate information to the world [...]

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