If you tend to look closely at supermarket produce when browsing the shelves, especially cured, cured, smoked or luncheon meats, you’ve probably noticed the term “nitrite” on the label. Like nitrates, these chemical compounds are commonly used to preserve meats and prevent the growth of bacteria.
While nitrites do improve the quality and safety of commonly consumed meat products, excessive exposure poses a few health risks, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
What are nitrites?
Nitrites are chemical compounds containing nitrogen and oxygen, with the chemical formula NO₂. They are commonly used as preservatives in processed meats, such as bacon, ham, and hot dogs, to inhibit bacterial growth and extend shelf life. Nitrites inhibit the growth of bacteria responsible for food spoilage and foodborne illnesses, such as botulism, and they give cured meats their characteristic pink color and distinctive flavor.
Experimental studies show both benefits and adverse effects of nitrite exposure. Although they help prevent foodborne illnesses, excessive consumption of nitrites has been linked to health risks, such as the formation of carcinogenic compounds in the body and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
One of the main problems with nitrites is that they can react with certain amino acids in the stomach to form nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. Nitrosamines have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, especially in the digestive system. Furthermore, nitrites can also interact with other substances in the body to form reactive nitrogen species, which can damage cells and contribute to the development of various diseases.
Consuming high levels of nitrites over a prolonged period can also lead to methemoglobinemia, a condition in which the blood is unable to transport oxygen effectively. Symptoms of methemoglobinemia are shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches, and blue discoloration of the skin or lips. Research indicates that methemoglobinemia usually occurs as a result of accidental exposure to excessive amounts of nitrites, but if symptoms are recognized early, it can be treated.
Because of these effects of nitrites on the human body, many health experts advise limiting the consumption of processed meats and choosing natural alternatives without added nitrites whenever possible.
Types of nitrites
There are several types of nitrites, including the following:
Sodium nitrite: This is the nitrite most commonly used in food preservation. It is a white to slightly yellowish crystalline powder, soluble in water, which is an important nitrite salt in foods and industrial products.
Potassium Nitrite: This is another nitrite commonly used in food preservation, white to slightly yellowish in color. It is also a water soluble crystalline powder.
Calcium Nitrite: This is a less common nitrite, used for food preservation and meat curing. It is also used as an antifreeze additive and as a means of preventing corrosion in industrial products.
Amyl nitrite: This is a medical nitrite used to treat certain heart and vascular conditions. It is classified as an inhalant and acts as a depressant which slows down the messages circulating between the brain and the body.
Sodium Nitrate: This is not a nitrite, but a closely related compound often used in combination with sodium nitrite in food preservation.
Nitrites and nitrates
Nitrites and nitrates are related chemical compounds commonly used in food preservation, and their chemical structure is similar. Nitrites contain one less oxygen atom than nitrates and are transformed into nitrates in the body.
Here are some key differences between nitrites and nitrates:
Chemical structure: Nitrites have the chemical formula NO₂, while nitrates have the chemical formula NO₃. Nitrites contain one less oxygen atom than nitrates.
Conversion: When nitrates hit the tongue, bacteria in the mouth or enzymes in the body convert them to nitrites.
Uses: Nitrites are commonly used as preservatives in processed meats, while nitrates are used as soil fertilizers. Nitrates also occur naturally in vegetables, fruits and grains. Also, the body naturally produces nitrates by excreting the compound in saliva.
Health Effects: Nitrites and nitrates have been linked to health risks when consumed in excess. Nitrites have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, while nitrates have been linked to methemoglobinemia, a condition that reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.
Regulation: The use of nitrites and nitrates in food preservation is regulated by many countries to ensure safe levels of consumption. `
Foods that contain it
Nitrites are commonly added to processed meats and meat products to inhibit bacterial growth and enhance flavor and color.
Here are some common examples of foods that may contain nitrites:
Salted and dried meats
Meat-based baby food
Meat-based soups and stews
Remember that not all processed meats contain nitrites, and some natural and organic meat products may contain them as well. Read food labels carefully and look for one of the types of nitrites in the ingredient list. As a general rule, choose fresh meat products whenever possible to reduce nitrite consumption.
Risks and side effects
Consumption of excessive amounts of nitrites can have various risks and side effects on human health.
Here are some of the risks and side effects associated with consuming nitrites:
Formation of carcinogenic compounds: Nitrites can react with amino acids found in meat products to form nitrosamines, known carcinogens that have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, particularly colon cancer.
Methemoglobinemia: In infants, consuming excessive amounts of nitrites can lead to methemoglobinemia, a life-threatening condition that reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. This can lead to symptoms such as shortness of breath, bluish discoloration of the skin, and fatigue.
Headaches and nausea: Some people may experience headaches and nausea after consuming foods that contain high amounts of nitrites. Research suggests that migraines are linked to high levels of nitrites and nitrates in the human oral cavity.
Increased risk of cardiovascular disease: Some studies indicate that a high intake of nitrites may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease by promoting the formation of free radicals and oxidative stress in the body.
Increased risk of diabetes: Recent research shows that the consumption of nitrites and nitrates is associated with type 2 diabetes, as mentioned above.
Allergic reactions: In rare cases, nitrites can cause allergic reactions in some people, such as hives, itching and difficulty breathing.
Choosing natural, minimally processed meat products and limiting the consumption of processed meats can help reduce nitrite intake and promote overall health. Eating plenty of organic fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants and phytonutrients, will help reduce the damage caused by oxidative stress and lower the risk of cancer.
Nitrites are chemical compounds containing nitrogen and oxygen. They are commonly used as preservatives in processed meats, such as bacon, ham, to inhibit bacterial growth and extend shelf life. Potential dangers of excessive nitrite consumption include an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions. It is recommended to limit the consumption of foods containing nitrites, especially salted and dried meats, in order to prevent the potential health risks of nitrites.