Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are food additives used in processed meat products to give them a fresh appearance, smell and taste. Nitrates also appear in many of the vegetables you eat because nitrates are used as fertilizers and pesticides. While low doses of sodium nitrite and nitrate are considered safe, larger doses may be problematic. This is particularly true for children.
Methemoglobinemia occurs in children who consume large amounts of nitrites, often when water containing nitrites is used to mix formula. Infants under the age of 4 months are at the greatest risk, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This condition, also known as “blue baby syndrome,” happens when the hemoglobin in your child’s blood is improperly oxygenated, causing the skin to turn blue. This can lead to coma or death if left untreated.
Sodium nitrite, when heated, creates nitrosamines. A study published in the January 2009 issue of “BioMed Central” found that children who eat processed meats more than once a week are at an increased risk of developing leukemia, the most common type of childhood cancer. Researchers attribute this to the nitrites and nitrosamines found in processed meats. However, this study also shows that vegetables, even those high in nitrates, appear to reduce the risk of developing childhood cancer.
A study in the August 1994 issue of “Diabetic Medicine: A Journal of the British Diabetic Association” found that nitrate and nitrite consumption increased a child’s odds of developing type 1 diabetes. If your child is urinating frequently, appears fatigued, is extremely hungry and expresses vision complaints it is important to get her to the pediatrician to be tested for diabetes immediately.
Children who are exposed to large amounts of sodium nitrate or nitrite might be at an increased risk of developing childhood diabetes, experience recurrent diarrhea or contract upper respiratory infections more easily, according to the EPA. Nitrates are also dangerous for unborn children. Mothers with diets rich in sodium nitrite and nitrate are more likely to have babies with slow intrauterine growth, heart defects and Sudden Infant Deaths Syndrome or SIDS.
The best way to avoid possible complications from nitrites is to limit your consumption. Check your food labels to ensure the foods you eat do not contain sodium nitrite, potassium nitrate or ammonium nitrate. Look for nitrite-free and nitrate-free options of your favorite processed meat products. As for vegetables, the organization Healthy Child, Healthy World, suggests refrigerating vegetables with high nitrate content, like beets, to slow the process of nitrates turning into the more dangerous nitrites.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Nitrates and Nitrites; May 2007
- "BioMed Central"; Cured Meat, Vegetables, and Bean-curd Foods in Relation to Childhood Acute Leukemia Risk; Chen-yu Liu et al.; January 2009
- Healthy Child, Healthy World: Nitrite, Nitrate
- “Diabetic Medicine: A Journal of the British Diabetic Association”; Nitrate and Nitrite Intake and the Risk for Type 1 Diabetes in Finnish Children; S.M. Virtanen et al.; August 1994