The Harmful Effect of Sodium Nitrite in Food

Manufacturers put nitrites and nitrates in food products to prevent spoilage. Yet this practice can lead to side effects like stomach cancer, lung disease and headaches. Learning more about food additives like sodium nitrite and food labeling will help you make wise health decisions.
Limit your intake of processed meats to lower your exposure to sodium nitrite. (Image: LarisaBlinova/iStock/GettyImages)

Nitrates in Foods

Sodium nitrite looks like an oversized grain of salt, according to a 2017 database entry from the International Programme on Chemical Safety. Most cured meat products feature this food additive, according to a March 2012 paper in Meat Science. Adding a small amount of sodium nitrite turns foods like hot dogs slightly pink.

The writers of a July 2012 paper in the Journal of Food Protection indicated that putting nitrites in foods can prevent botulism, a type of food poisoning caused the by Clostridium botulinum bacterium. These researchers showed that the food additive kept bologna, sausage and ham safe to eat during five weeks of storage. Adding even a small amount of sodium nitrite provided this protection.

The antioxidant effects of nitrites also prevent other forms of rancidity. A July 2016 paper in Meat Science showed that sodium nitrite decreased the amount of malondialdehyde present in 28-day-old sausages. Doctors use this marker of oxidative stress to diagnose many diseases. Malondialdehyde also causes mutations in laboratory animals, according to a May 2014 paper in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.

Dangers of Nitrites

The benefits of sodium nitrite come at a price. A meta-analysis in the December 2015 issue of Nutrients showed that having a greater nitrite intake increases your cancer risk. Specifically, increasing your nitrite intake by 0.1 mg a day over a long period increases your risk of getting gastric cancer 7 percent.

Nitrites can contaminate drinking water, according to a March 2012 article in Nitric Oxide. Such contamination can eventually reach foods like dairy products. The diet of an infant heavily relies on these products, and that reliance puts them at risk for nitrite exposure and methemoglobinemia, a medical condition wherein your red blood cells can't properly release oxygen, thus causing tissue damage.

The authors of a 2013 report in Nitrogen as a Water Pollutant described many cases of methemoglobinemia caused by infants drinking water contaminated with nitrite. Such exposure should raise concerns given the negative effects sodium nitrite can have on the developing brain.

For example, a June 2017 article in Behavioural Brain Research showed that exposing laboratory animals to sodium nitrite decreased the amount of oxygen available to their bodies. That hypoxia caused brain lesions, depression and anxiety.

Lower Your Risks

Fortunately, there are several ways for you to decrease your exposure. The authors of a June 2013 paper in the International Journal of Food and Science Technology explored using concurrent food additives. These researchers showed that manufacturers can add nutrients from green tea and grape seed to decrease the amount of nitrite metabolites like N-nitrosamine.

Blocking this dangerous substance can prevent nitrite-related damage. Adding ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, during the curing process blocks nitrite metabolites as does celery juice. An August 2013 article in Meat Science showed that celery juice can block the Listeria monocytogenes bacterium in some cases. Celery juice works as well as sodium nitrite while protecting ham, but it doesn't work as well while protecting broth.

Buying certain foods can also lower your risks. Farmers can't add sodium nitrite to natural or organic products, according to the University of Wisconsin. Yet there's a loophole in this law. Makers can cure a meat using a vegetable product like celery juice, which has abundant sodium nitrite. They can then label it as uncured because they added only a natural substance.

Nonetheless, as a consumer, you can easily determine whether a meat product has been cured. If it has a pinkish tone, the maker uses a curing agent to process this meat. You can also find which agent they used. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires the listing of all ingredients.

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