If you're reading the ingredient list on the food you eat, you may notice a host of ingredients — such as sodium nitrate — that don't sound like something in your kitchen cupboard. This food additive is used to add flavor and color and to prolong the shelf life of food. While sodium nitrate in food has come under fire due to a possible connection to cancer and other health problems, the additive is approved for use in the United States.
What Is Sodium Nitrate?
Sodium nitrate is a natural salt made up of sodium, nitrogen and oxygen. It's used in meats not only to enhance flavor and add color but also as a preservative to prevent bacterial growth and spoilage. Some of these bacteria can be dangerous, such as Clostridium botulinum and Listeria monocytogenes, which cause potentially serious diseases.
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Sodium nitrate in food is an additive that is considered safe by U.S. government standards. However, when sodium nitrate interacts with bacteria in meat, it changes chemically, loses one oxygen and becomes sodium nitrite. With time, sodium nitrate can form either nitric oxide, which is a gas, or nitrosamines, which are chemicals known to be carcinogenic to animals.
Due to the cancer concerns surrounding nitrosamines, the USDA limits the amount of sodium nitrate in meats — no more than 500 parts per million — and requires that these foods contain added vitamin C, which helps prevent the formation of nitrosamine.
Read more: Lunch Meat Without Sodium Nitrate
Sodium Nitrate in Food
You're more likely to find sodium nitrite in foods than sodium nitrate, as sodium nitrite is one of the compounds formed spontaneously from sodium nitrate. However, natural sodium nitrate is still used in dry cured meats and meats made in specialty shops, such as salami.
If you're eating these meats, read the ingredients list to see if they contain the food additive. You can also ask the butcher or maker of the meat for information about the sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite preservative content. Examples of foods containing sodium nitrites include:
- Hot dogs
- Corned beef
- Beef jerky
- Lunch meat
- Any salted, cured or smoked meats
Natural Sources of Nitrate
Cured meats aren't the only source of sodium nitrates. In fact, roughly 80 percent of dietary nitrates come from vegetable consumption. The nitrates naturally found in vegetables form sodium nitrate from nitrogen in the soil. Examples of natural sources of nitrate include:
- Mustard greens
- Leafy vegetables such as lettuce or spinach
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends daily sodium nitrate intake be limited to 7 milligrams of nitrate ion per kilogram of body weight, or 477 milligrams for a 150-pound person, with weight in pounds divided by 2.2 to determine kilograms of body weight.
Read more: What Green Lettuce Is the Most Nutritious?
Sodium Nitrate Dangers
It's important to consider sodium nitrate dangers as you choose a healthy diet. Eating small amounts of processed meat every day, as little as 2 ounces, increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
While the connection between processed meats and cancer isn't clear, nitrites and nitrates are currently being investigated as a possible factor. It's OK to eat processed meats, such as hot dogs or salami, on occasion, but the American Cancer Society recommends a diet that limits processed meat and red meat and boosts intake of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
It's also important to remember that veggies such as leafy greens, which also have many health benefits, may be your primary source of sodium nitrate. Nitrates in the food you eat convert to the gas nitric oxide in your body, which promotes proper functioning of your vascular system. Nitric oxide may also reduce inflammation and offer some protection against cancer. If you're concerned about nitrates in your diet and risk of cancer, consult your doctor for guidance.
- Kansas State University: "Kansas Value Added Foods Lab: Microorganisms of Concern"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Food Additive Status List"
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: "Nitrate and Nitrite in Health and Disease"
- American Cancer Society: "What’s Wrong With Hot Dogs, Hamburgers, and Bacon?"
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: "Nitrate in Leafy Green Vegetables and Estimated Intake"
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: "Nitrate/Nitrite Toxicity: What Are U.S. Standards and Regulations for Nitrates and Nitrites Exposure?"