The Truth About Nitrites and Nitrates

Long before I’d even given processed food or real food a thought, I’d heard about the supposed dangers of nitrites and nitrates. You’re probably nodding your head in agreement (especially if you’ve been pregnant and told to avoid lunch meat). But really, how many of us actually know what a nitrate or nitrite is and exactly why it’s something we should avoid in the first place? And to make matters even more confusing, who knows what the difference is between an added nitrite/nitrate and a naturally occurring one and why the difference matters?

The Truth About Nitrates and Nitrites on 100 Days of #RealFood

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These questions have long been asked on my blog whenever I talk about our occasional consumption of organic lunch meat, bacon, hot dogs, etc. So I’m super excited to dive head first into this confusing topic in today’s sponsored post with Applegate.

First of all though, I want to make one thing clear. Yes, Applegate is my sponsor (i.e., they help financially support this blog and the team that runs it so it can remain completely and 100% free to you), and yes, I’ve agreed to write two blog posts this year that are sponsored by them. BUT, they asked me what I wanted to write about in these posts. So, even though I am being compensated, I have free creative control here, and frankly (don’t tell them this), I’d write a post just like this regardless of whether they were involved!

That’s the beauty of the majority of the sponsors we work with. We make it a goal to connect with companies I would talk about (or use products from) whether or not they were helping to keep our lights on. Alright, now that I’ve cleared the air on that, let’s dive in…

Some Questions Answered

  1. What are nitrates and nitrites (and what’s the difference between the two)?
    “Nitrates (NO3) are chemical compounds created during photosynthesis. When nitrates combine with certain bacteria, they break down into nitrites. Sodium nitrate was first found in mines, and for centuries people used this salt-like material to preserve meat. In the early 1900’s, scientists discovered how to make sodium nitrite synthetically. Since this factory process was easily standardized, synthetic nitrite became popular. Today, these industrial chemicals are also used in products like fertilizer, pyrotechnics and rocket propellant, and can contain heavy metals, arsenic and lead.”
  2. How did nitrates and nitrites get such a bad rap?
    “When nitrites combine with amines in meat at high temperatures, they can form nitrosamines. About 40 years ago, some studies found nitrosamines to be carcinogenic. Since then, we have discovered that only 5% of nitrites consumed by humans are found in meat – we get 93% from plants and water. The average person only consumes microscopic amounts of nitrosamines, not the large amount the study found to cause cancer.”
    It’s also worth noting that the Environmental Working Group lists added (i.e. synthetic) nitrates and nitrites as one of their top 12 additives to avoid.
  3. The studies aside, to me “synthetic” and “artificial” are bad words when it comes to my food. What’s the story with naturally occurring nitrates?
    “Some companies (including Applegate) cure meat using nitrates found in nature – in celery, specifically. When mixed with a culture starter, the natural nitrates in celery juice turn to nitrites and achieve the desirable results (better flavor and appearance) without the factory side effects.” To be able to identify lunchmeat (or hot dogs or bacon or another cured meat) that only uses the naturally occurring nitrates, look for the package to say “No Nitrites or Nitrates Added.” The fact that they were not “added” is our clue that it wasn’t synthetic. Confusing, I know.
  4. Whether we’re talking natural or synthetic, why are nitrates used on meats in the first place?
    “Nitrates are part of a curing process that does four things:
    1. Gives cured meats like ham and hot dogs a deep, meaty flavor.
    2. Prevents the growth of bacteria that cause food borne illnesses.
    3. Stops meat from turning grey.
    4. Preserves products so they last longer.”
  5. Okay, so wait – you just said nitrates (whether natural or synthetic) are used during the curing process, BUT your packages say “uncured” on them. What’s up with that?
    “This is thanks to an outdated labeling law that Applegate has petitioned the USDA to change (unsuccessfully so far). Back in the day, the USDA required products with the synthetic compound added to be labeled as “cured” (to help customers identify bacteria-free foods), and label laws haven’t changed since the naturally occurring compound has become more popular.”
  6. How much (many?) naturally-occuring nitrites are in your end products?
    “Applegate’s end products have a nitrite level of less than 40 parts per million. This is well below the USDA limit of 200 parts per million.”
  7. Why do some of my commenters still tell me that even the naturally occurring nitrates are no good and I shouldn’t consume them?
    So, here’s the deal. “We feel a naturally-derived, plant-based compound is better than a factory-developed, synthetic one. We also always recommend that consumers do their own research (and consult with their doctor if necessary) in order to make the choices that are best for them. We can all agree that hot dogs and bacon have never been touted as a health food that should be eaten every day. But, at Applegate, we maintain a commonsense approach to food and believe that naturally cured meats enjoyed in moderation can be part of a healthy diet.”

Now, what’s interesting is that before Applegate got good at using the naturally-occuring nitrates, I learned they actually didn’t use any at all. And what that meant was grayish-looking hot dogs that obviously weren’t too appealing and therefore didn’t sell very well. As I shared last year, I actually used to buy bacon from our farmers’ market that had nothing added, was not cured, and also was not smoked. What we ended up with was basically just plain pork, which tastes quite different from what I know as bacon. So while meat products can be done without any nitrates at all, they may be hard to find and you also might not end up with the taste and appearance you were expecting.

So with that, I think I’ll happily stick to Applegate’s common sense philosophy of cured meat products being an occasional food at our house (probably on average of about once a month). Because thankfully, I have access to many different tasty organic (and grass-fed) options that are naturally cured!

Where do you stand?

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65 thoughts on “The Truth About Nitrites and Nitrates”

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  1. “We feel a naturally-derived, plant-based compound is better than a factory-developed, synthetic one” Statements like this are why people of science turn-off on these articles. Two chemical compounds are identical regardless of their source. I also understand chemical chirality whereby left and right handed molecules can exist. Regardless, a molecule is a molecule.

    1. JR. sooooo Given that synthetic sodium nitrite is toxic in large quantities and can die from them. Research indicates that the toxic level of synthetic sodium nitrite for a 143lb person is 71 mg/kg… meaning consumption of this amount would result in death. However, sodium nitrite occurs naturally in most of the vegetables we consume.  For example, curly kale has been clocked in at 302 mg/kg and green cauliflower at 61 mg/kg.  Most vegetables fall somewhere between 1.1 and 57 mg/kg.
      Does this mean we can die from consuming large amounts of high heat cooking vegetables?
      No.  You can not die.
      There is a lot of studies on this, so what this person is stating is their opinion and telling others to do their own research at the end of the day. Some science say natural plant base compound is better and some science says its not and no different. Do your own research. To me I also think natural occurring is better. Some scientists say they’re actually healthy.

    2. This is my difficulty as well: Is there background science that tells us that plant-derived nitrites are better (or at least less bad) for us than factory-produced? Or is this more of a general philosophy?

  2. This really didn’t clear much up for me and just felt like an add. Pretty disappointed. This has been my go to site.