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Nitrite and Sodium Nitrate - Food and the Danger to Health

Even in the information age, there are many myths and some confusion about the use of nitrite and sodium nitrate in food. Such chemical compounds are naturally found in some foods such as vegetables, for example, or intentionally added in processed foods such as bacon to act as a preservative.

There is some concern with nitrite and sodium nitrates, since many people believe they are harmful substances that can even cause cancer. Others argue that its use is completely safe and healthy.

We will discuss whether the use of nitrite and sodium nitrate in food pose a health hazard or if this is just a myth.

Nitrite and Sodium Nitrate

To understand a little better what these substances are, we need to keep in mind a bit of chemistry. Sodium nitrite and nitrate are very similar chemical compounds, which differ only in the amount of oxygen atoms.

Sodium nitrite consists of one atom of nitrogen and two atoms of oxygen, while sodium nitrite has one atom of nitrogen and three atoms of oxygen.

Sodium nitrate is considered to be practically inert, ie it does not react with any substance in the body. Already in sodium nitrite, this less oxygen atom makes all the difference, since it ends up "being left" a pair of electrons in nitrogen with less oxygen, which can easily react with other molecules. In this way, sodium nitrite is more reactive than sodium nitrate.

But what does it mean?

This high nitrite reactivity means that sodium nitrite can bind to other substances in a way that is harmful to the body. They can develop mainly in nitric oxide, which does not cause harm to health, or in nitrosamines, a substance that brings health damages.

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Nitrates, however, should not cause any harm to health, unless they are converted by bacteria or enzymes present naturally in the body in nitrites and that these nitrites are transformed into a compound bad.


Sodium nitrite is the main preservative used in red meat. It is because of him, even, that the raw meat shows pink or reddish tone. The sodium nitrites added to the meat, for example, react with the meat proteins to nitric oxide, which changes the color of the product. If it were not for this additive, the meat would be dark and would spoil more quickly.

In addition to red meat, nitrite and sodium nitrate are often added as preservatives in processed foods like bacon, ham and sausage. Its preservative action helps prevent the growth of bacteria in the food and reduces lipid oxidation, which decreases the shelf life of the product.

Health hazard

The consumption of processed meats is strongly linked to a higher risk of developing certain types of cancer, such as cancer in the digestive tract. And that's where the confusion comes in: a lot of people believe that nitrite and sodium nitrate are responsible for this and other health problems.

However, according to a study published in 2009, about 80% of nitrates obtained through a person's diet are obtained through vegetable consumption. How can such an abundant substance naturally be a cause of disease?

Even after research published by theAmerican Cancer Society, furNational Research Counciland forNational Academy of Sciencesthat there is insufficient scientific evidence to show that consumption of sodium nitrite can cause cancer and that nitrites in normal amounts in the preserved flesh are not enough to cause any kind of cancer, many people believe that the substance causes the disease.

To clarify a bit more than nitrite and sodium nitrate are capable, we will show when these substances are good for health and when they can pose a health hazard.

Good side

- Natural foods and water

As already mentioned, sodium nitrite and nitrate are found not only as preservatives, but also naturally in several such as vegetables, which are considered healthy and are even associated with a lower risk of developing cancer.

In fact, vegetables are the largest source of food nitrates. Even in drinking water we can eventually find a certain amount of nitrates. Thus, the amount of preservative present in the processed products is very small compared to the vegetables, for example.

- Natural production by the organism

Our own body produces nitrates in large quantities and secretes the substance through saliva. The nitrites and nitrates circulate through the digestive system to the bloodstream, from where they go to the saliva and back to the digestive system, which is called the whole-salivary circulation.

- Bactericidal action

Sodium nitrite and nitrate appear to act as antimicrobials in the digestive system, helping to eliminate harmful bacteria likeSalmonella, for example. They can also be converted to nitric oxide (NO), a very important molecule for the body's natural metabolism.

- Reduced blood pressure and benefits for the heart

Sodium nitrite, by losing an oxygen atom, can turn into nitric oxide, a molecule that has many functions in the body, including cell signaling. Nitric oxide travels through the walls of the arteries sending signals of relaxation to muscle cells around the arteries, for example. When cells relax, blood vessels are dilated and blood pressure decreases.

This process brings benefits such as prevention or reversal of angina, a chest pain that occurs when the muscle the heart does not receive enough oxygen due to reduced blood flow resulting from high blood pressure, example.

Several studies show that using nitrate supplements like beet roots can greatly reduce blood pressure. It is worth remembering that high blood pressure is one of the most dangerous risk factors for the development of heart disease and stroke.

- Performance in physical activity

Many athletes have been using nitrates to boost physical performance. Several studies show that they can improve physical performance, especially during high-intensity resistance exercises.

This probably occurs because nitrates increase the efficiency of mitochondria, cellular components responsible for energy production. Studies show that ingesting beet root, which is rich in nitrates, for example, can reduce the demand for oxygen during exercise up to,%, increase exhaust time by running up to 15% and improve performance in 4%.

Bad side

- Methemoglobinemia

A real danger related to nitrate in drinking water, for example, has to do with the exposure of children under 6 months water, since at that age they are still not able to process nitrate.

This can cause a dangerous condition called methemoglobinemia, which occurs when hemoglobin in the blood is excessively converted into metha- hemoglobin, which is unable to bind to oxygen and trans- blood. However, older children and adults have no problem processing nitrates and will hardly develop this condition.

- Excess

According toCenters for Disease Control and Preventionof the US, the daily intake of sodium nitrate should not exceed, milligrams per kg of the individual. However, the amount of preservatives added in the products is not usually listed on the labels, making it difficult to control the amount ingested.

A diet rich in foods with sodium nitrite, for example, can cause irritation to the digestive system, including the mouth, esophagus and stomach, in addition to abdominal pain.

- Formation of nitrosamines

A problem associated with the consumption of nitrite and sodium nitrate is the formation of nitrosamines. In specific cases, the formation of this substance may occur. Usually, this occurs when cooking at high temperatures. This is because nitrites, when exposed to high temperatures and in the presence of amino acids, can turn into nitrosamines.

There are several types of nitrosamines, but the vast majority are carcinogenic substances, such as those found in tobacco smoke, for example.

As much of the processed foods as bacon, sausage and meats contain sodium nitrite as preservative and are rich in proteins, are also rich in amino acids (substances that proteins). Thus, by exposing these foods to high heat, we have the perfect condition to form nitrosamines.

It is important to note that the formation of these compounds is actually only favored at very high temperatures, such as during an oil frying, for example. Vegetables, even if rich in nitrite and sodium nitrate and with the potential presence of some proteins, are not usually exposed to such high temperatures during cooking.

Thus, to avoid the formation of nitrosamines, the ideal is to avoid frying and avoid exposing these foods to very high temperatures. Cooking food over low heat may take longer, but it will produce less nitrosamines than if the fire is high.

Manufacturers of these foods are generally required to limit the amount of nitrite used as food additive and are also required to add vitamin C to the product, which inhibits the formation of nitrosamine.

- Risk of type I diabetes in children

Type I diabetes can occur in childhood, when the pancreas is not able to produce insulin. Consumption of large amounts of sodium nitrite may increase this risk due to the body's reaction to the substance.


Thus, it is a myth to believe that the nitrite and sodium nitrate present in food represent a health hazard. They can cause some damage if they are turned into harmful substances, but this can easily be avoided by controlling the temperature more carefully to avoid frying in oil or similar products or reduce the consumption of red meats and processed foods rich in these compounds.

Additional references:

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Do you consume many of these foods listed above rich in nitrite and sodium nitrate? Did you think there was a clearer and more obvious risk of these substances to health? Comment below!

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