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How Nitrates & Nitrites Affect Our Bodies

author image Laura Niedziocha
Laura Niedziocha began her writing career in 2007. She has contributed material to the Stoneking Physical Therapy and Wellness Center in Lambertville, N.J., and her work has appeared in various online publications. Niedziocha graduated from Temple University with a Bachelor of Science in exercise science. She also has her Associate of Arts in communications from the Community College of Philadelphia.
How Nitrates & Nitrites Affect Our Bodies
Processed meats like sausage contain nitrates or nitrites. Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images

Nitrates and nitrites are found in many foods you may consume on a daily basis. They occur naturally in vegetables and are added to meat products as a preservative. Nitrates are relatively harmless, until they are converted into nitrites inside your body. Ingesting too many nitrites can cause ill effects such as a anemic-like disorder as well as cancer. Avoiding processed meats is a good way to reduce your intake of nitrates and nitrites.


Nitrates are generally harmless to your body. It is what happens to the nitrate once it is ingested which is troublesome. When you take in nitrates, they are converted to nitrites. Inside your stomach, 5 percent of the nitrates you take in are converted to nitrites. The rest of the nitrates become nitrites farther down into your intestines, which can limit the amount your body absorbs.


When too many nitrites enter your system, you risk getting methemoglobinemia. This is a condition in which the nitrites in your blood interact with hemoglobin and iron. Both hemoglobin and iron allow your blood to carry oxygen. However, nitrites convert the hemoglobin-iron compound to methemoglobin by oxidizing the iron molecule. The methemoglobin molecule does not carry oxygen. This reduces the amount of oxygen inside your blood which is dangerous because all of your living cells need oxygen to function. Complications can include seizure or even death. Luckily, methemoglobinemia when caused by too many nitrates and nitrites can be treated when these elements are taken out of the diet.


Eating nitrite rich foods like processed meats can increase your risk of stomach and esophageal cancer, according to the website Medline Plus. These foods contain sodium-nitrite as a preservative. Nitrite can be converted to nitrosamines which are known to cause cancer. Reducing your intake of foods containing nitrates and nitrites may reduce your risk of certain cancers.


Infants are at high risk of complications from nitrates and nitrites because of their young digestive systems. A baby has a higher pH inside his stomach. When he ingests nitrates, a higher pH leads to a larger conversion of the nitrates to nitrites. More nitrites in the stomach increase his chance of developing methemoglobinemia. Though this condition is very rare, certain foods increase his risk. High nitrate foods like carrots, green beans, spinach, squash and beets should not be introduced before three months of age. If your child is drinking well water with his formula, have your water tested for its nitrate level. The child with nitrate poisoning may exhibit a blue or purple color because of the lack of oxygen. If you suspect your infant has nitrate poisoning, seek immediate medical help.

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