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.
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.
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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.
- International Programme on Chemical Safety: "Sodium Nitrite"
- Meat Science: "Sodium Nitrite: the 'Cure' for Nitric Oxide Insufficiency"
- Journal of Food Protection: "Inhibition of Toxigenesis of Group II (Nonproteolytic) Clostridium botulinum Type B in Meat Products by Using a Reduced Level of Nitrite"
- Meat Science: "Effect of Sodium Ascorbate and Sodium Nitrite on Protein and Lipid Oxidation in Dry Fermented Sausages"
- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: "Lipid Peroxidation: Production, Metabolism, and Signaling Mechanisms of Malondialdehyde and 4-Hydroxy-2-Nonenal"
- Nutrients: "Dietary Nitrates, Nitrites, and Nitrosamines Intake and the Risk of Gastric Cancer"
- Nitric Oxide: "Human Safety Controversies Surrounding Nitrate and Nitrite in the Diet"
- Nitrogen as a Water Pollutant: "Infant Methemoglobinemia and Other Health Effects of Nitrate in Drinking Water"
- Behavioural Brain Research: "Hippocampal and Cerebellar Histological Changes and Their Behavioural Repercussions Caused by Brain Ischaemic Hypoxia Experimentally Induced by Sodium Nitrite"
- International Journal of Food and Science Technology: "Effect of Plant Polyphenols and Ascorbic Acid on Lipid Oxidation, Residual Nitrite and N-Nitrosamines Formation in Dry-Cured Sausage"
- Meat Science: "Effect of pH and Nitrite Concentration on the Antimicrobial Impact of Celery Juice Concentrate Compared With Conventional Sodium Nitrite on Listeria Monocytogenes"
- University of Wisconsin: "What's the Deal With Nitrates and Nitrites Used in Meat?"