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

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”

  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.

  3. As someone who worked closely with EPA data fire many years, I assure you that you drink more Nitrates in your drinking water than you’ll ever eat in cured meat. And don’t think bottled water has less. It often has just as much or more.

  4. I went through a time where I needed to spend less money on meat and ended up buying luncheon meat, hot dogs & sausage with synthetic nitrates. My daughter ended up with an awful case of eczema as a result. Once we cleared up her rash (which took 6 months) we never went back to meat with synthetic nitrates and she has not had a single flair up. I could not find any evidence online to support the linkage but it is the only dietary or environmental change we had made. My poor girl was covered from her neck to her knees!

  5. What should be avoided is nitrosamines, not nitrates or nitrites, which are formed in our bodies when we don’t have enough vitamin C to protect against the amount of nitrates/nitrites we eat. Higher amts of nitrate in meats and maybe over-fertilized veggies could be trouble.
    Natural vit C in nitrate-containing veggies is probably better than whatever may be added to nitrate-meats, because it’s probably better absorbed and thus more effective in preventing nitrosamines. http://www.fooducate.com/app#!page=post&id=542BED3A-B766-9FC1-4343-8F1DFC8CCCC2

  6. I would love to see a study on naturally-occuring nitrates and how they affect health. Because while this information seems reassuring, it’s really only their opinion that the natural form is better, they give absolutely no evidence to back that up.

  7. I had read at some point that I shouldn’t make my own carrots for baby food b/c of (unsafe?) levels of nitrates? Do you have any insight on this?

  8. Thanks for the information. If I do buy lunch meat I get applegate. I like it and it is available in the 2 grocery stores that I shop at (Meijer and Trader Joe’s). I usually roast a turkey breast weekly and we eat that on sandwiches or I grill extra chicken.

  9. This information is crucial to living out a long healthy life, feeling fibrant, with clarity, and energy. I also believe that all our food products today,that so many of us consume are the reason for a rise with cancer, depression, low energy, sleepless, and several others..almost too many to list.

  10. Nice, thanks for the post. I buy Applegate products for my husband (I don’t eat “the meats” myself), so it’s nice to know that what is filling his belly, and sometimes my dogs’ bellies, is the good stuff.

    And thanks for the full disclosure on your sponsorship. I didn’t feel the article was slanted, it just happened to mention Applegate a lot. And that is totally fine if it means I can continue to enjoy your blog.

  11. Lisa,

    Thank you for clearing this issue up!! I appreciate all the great information you share.

    Sincerely,
    Abby

  12. The only thing about Applegate is some of their items have Carrageenan in it, which the Food Babe states is not something you want in your food, I don’t think their bacon has it, but their lunch meats do.

  13. Thanks for the interesting article. The one thing I knew before I read the article was that nitrites/nitrates give me migraines. I have been buying Applegate uncured meats for several years. Boar’s Head also has a ‘natural’ line that includes ham, turkey and beef.

  14. Lisa, thank you for the informative article. It does not bother me in the least if a sponsor is involved when I know you are addressing my own concerns and giving me information. I find your blog to be full of realiable information that can help me prepare meals that are more healthful for my family, whom I want to live healthy long lives – and isn’t that the whole purpose of learning to shop and cook wisely? I became concerned about processed foods while I was in my 40’s, because my hubby & kids were eating so much lunchmeat etc. I was the one shopping and was beginning to question all the ingredients and their amounts listed on the packages. I found myself really feeling “responsible” for what they consumed, since I, afterall, was the shopper and cook. I applaud you for having a blog that promotes good family health, via what mom puts out there to be eaten daily. My big change in the last 15 yrs has been to cut WAY back on prepared (boxed/canned) foods and to cook with (the best that I could afford) fresh ingredients. I see big results now, we are healthy & in early ’60s and my kids are healthy foodwise adults. Keep it up girl! & Haters…bugger off! – kk

  15. I know they have both organic and non-organic options. Do they both only use naturally occurring nitrates/nitrites?

  16. I liked your article and found it very informative. It didn’t bother me you talking only about one company as it helps to know there’s a good company out there and their approach. Regarding these other comments… Wow! Get a life and stop criticizing and telling her how to run hers. I can’t believe anyone can feel justified being so rude, condescending, and hurtful. This is HER blog not yours. She has a right to write whatever she wants. You’re not paying her and no one is forcing you to read it. Don’t like it? Don’t read it! But keep your opinions respectful. Start your own blog and see how well you take everyone complaining about everything you say! For what it’s worth I think your blog is great and you should do whatever you want to with it. :)

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Ericka. Lisa does not buy Boar’s Head and I can’t speak to the quality of their products outside of what can be seen on their website.

  17. Thank you so much for posting this!! I have heard great things about Applegate but whenever I saw that they had nitrates/nitrites in the ingredients I was skeptical about buying it, and wasn’t sure if they were one of the companies who claim to be “healthy” but really just throw the word around to get people to buy. This information is very helpful, I appreciate it!!

    A new real foodie :)
    Ashton

    1. I hate it when I read these types of posts of fill-in-the-blank company “selling out” when they get purchased by a larger company. Any good company that does well will be bought up by one of the conglomerates. Deciding to no longer support the company that got bought means, to the corporate entities, that you don’t care about the values that made it popular. It has the exact opposite effect when consumers think they’re sending a message by boycotting – they are, with their dollars – telling the new corporate parent that the new product isn’t selling.

      And when a product doesn’t sell, what does the parent company do? It modifies it. I don’t want parent companies to modify my hot dogs, or my shampoo, or my soap, or my pretzels, or my frozen lunch meal. So I keep supporting Applegate, and Burts Bees, and all the other companies that did so well they got purchased.

      And the biggest one of all – how do you think consuemrs are able to purchase products if the company remains little and underfunded? They don’t. Corporate ownership helps little companies do better and still remain loyal to their values.

      Sorry to soapbox, but it gets a little tiring to see well-intentioned consumers fail on basic economics.

  18. I’m a big fan on your blog. I have only left a few comments over the past few years (all positive). Here, though, I have to agree with other people, that these sponsored posts are not helpful to me. A sponsored post, where you basically repeat the company’s ideas, doesn’t truly clear things up for me about nitrates/nitrites. I happen to be a fan of applegate (even though we have seen the quality go down a bit as they’ve become more popular). But when it comes to hot topics like this, I would prefer more investigative articles that quote from both sides of an issue. I’ll probably skip reading future sponsored adds and stick to your tips and recipes, which I love and really appreciate.

  19. This is great information. I learned a lot from it. I tend to buy organic and “nitrate free” and I admit that I have a huge negative stigma around it. 40 years ago my mother’s doctor told her not to allow us to eat bacon, lunch meat etc. My feeling is if we are eating mostly whole and plant based foods, getting plenty of rest, exercise and sunshine then our bodies have a way of eliminating and even healing the things that need eliminating and healing. We can’t focus on just one chemical in this instance and blame it for a huge problem like cancer. Cancer, in my opinion is really a much more complicated disease and probably has many many causes. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Amanda. Since these are items she uses only occasionally, she prefers their quality and does not worry much about the carrageenan some Applegate products. Generally however, we would love to see disappear from product’s ingredient lists.

  20. According to NutritionAction.com (produced by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest & they do not accept any paid advertising or corporate or government funding), “there’s no way to tell if you’re getting less nitrites from the naturally occurring nitrates in the celery juice powder that replaces sodium nitrite in many “no nitrates or nitrites added” sausages.”

    See this article for their chicken and turkey sausage recommendations:
    http://www.nutritionaction.com/daily/how-to-diet/are-chicken-and-turkey-dinner-sausages-healthy/

    If you want to avoid natural and synthetic nitrites, try veggie “meats,” like Tofurky (but avoid smoked varieties since that has also been found to be a cancer causing process).

  21. Great article that answered a couple of questions I had on the subject. Thanks for posting! Side note: I love your book. Your banana pancakes make it into our meal rotation almost weekly, my girls love them!

  22. While this post was informative, it would have been better if you had mentioned other companies that have nitrate and nitrite free meats. Such as Boars Head. Sponsored post are fine we all understand that this is your livelihood, but they should not be a commercial for one specific product brand.

    1. Danell – That’s actually exactly what a sponsored post is – an in-depth “ad” for one particular brand. And I am careful to only accept sponsored posts from brands I agree with and I also won’t do them more than once a month. I regularly turn away sponsors that don’t align with our beliefs and am always up front when a post is in-fact sponsored. That’s about the best I can do while continuing to support our blogging team and keeping all the content (and questions that we answer) free to the end user.

  23. As a long-time (albeit quiet) reader of your blog, I must say that over time, I’m getting very uncomfortable with sponsored posts here. I know you have to make a buck somehow, but this “article” is basically a polished-up ad for Applegate. Why pretend you are writing about something in a critical way? Why not just slap an ad on your site and be done with it? Yes, you quietly indicated it was a sponsored post; but I’m sure I am not the only reader feeling a bit used here.

    I actually like and use Applegate products, but this is smarmy and makes me want to not purchase them in the future just because I don’t appreciate manufacturers (and bloggers as well) treating me like I am too stupid to notice this.

    1. Boo – I basically wrote two paragraphs about how this is a sponsored post – how in the world is that “quietly” mentioning it or being deceiving in any way? I have to admit I am disappointed to hear your feedback when I feel I could not have been more up front about what this post is.

  24. Why the pretense that you’re critically examining this issue by lobbing softball questions for your sponsor? The scare tactics used and misinformation you present here rival that of the notoriously unscientific “Food Babe”. Why not ask your sponsor if synthetic nitrites and nitrates are the only potential sources of arsenic and heavy metals in the human diet? Spoiler alert, ALL plants (even celery!) can potentially be contaminated with these substances, they’re absorbed via soil (don’t believe me? look up arsenic levels in rice). Why not ask what the levels of nitrites are in bacon cured with synthetic nitrite rather than celery juice nitrite? Maybe because the levels are usually lower in bacon cured with synthetic nitrite than that cured with celery juice? Why not ask what possible difference they are suggesting exists between “factory” nitrites and nitrates and those that are “naturally occurring”? Maybe because, regardless of their source, nitrite is ALWAYS the same compound-NO2 and nitrate is ALWAYS the same compound-NO3? There is no difference, other than the price tag on the package of course. And the risks of nitrite exposure from processed food in any case are wildly inflated. 95% of your dietary nitrite exposure comes from plant sources. You do your readers a disservice to shill for these people and in the process participate in their misinformation campaign. Why not use this platform to inform rather than mislead?

    1. Umm, because those were not questions that I had? I asked the questions on my mind as well as the most common reader questions I got the last time I blogged about lunch meat, bacon and hot dogs. I am puzzled why you feel the need to point out that “95% of your dietary nitrite exposure comes from plant sources” when I quoted that “we get 93% from plants and water.” You act as if I am trying to hide this information.
      This is not an in-depth science blog about exactly how different foods are processed. If you need more detail than what I’ve shared here I encourage you to find more resources or start your own blog so you can document the information you are seeking.

      1. yeah no doubt! that doesn’t even sound like a real reader, it sounds like the lobbyist it probably is. and also sounds like someone who clearly didn’t read the article as there were absolutely no “scare tactics” of any kind, and trust me i read those all the time on other sites.

        the food war is on.

  25. We try to stay away from nitrates in general and don’t eat too much deli meat. That being said, Applegate uncured bacon is the best ever! I love it and make bacon for my kids almost every morning. They are such picky eaters and I try to get some protein into them in the morning!

  26. Thanks for this information. I’ve always wondered what exactly celery salt did. We do buy the nitrate free all natural Boar’s Head brand. But it’s not something we eat every day.

  27. Hi Lisa,

    I use and love the Applegate organic hot dogs all the time (which I say even though I’m not being sponsored :)), so was happy to see this article. Of course it’s still a processed food, but it has seemed to me a fairly clean one (instant organic & grass-fed protein seems like such a win), though this nitrate/nitrite thing has always bedeviled me… And considering now whether to cut back.

    I understand you’ve specified in #3 that naturally occurring nitrates from celery don’t have to count on the label as being “Added” – but do they or do they count as an “additive to avoid” (per the EWG)?

    Hoping this might be more clear to you than is immediately obvious to me :) …

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hello Deborah. It think that is a tough one to answer definitively. The fact that Lisa’s family chooses to consume these only on occasion (on average once a month), suggests that the consumption of processed meats, in general, should not be a frequent practice.

      1. I agree. Confusing. I think I was seduced by the “natural” nitrates and really skipped going to look them up, as well as the term “uncured,” and using these hotdogs more often than I’m going to now. I appreciate this article inspiring a little more diving in. For others reading, here’s a little more info from EWG to add to the above link from Eva. EWG includes nitrates on their “dirty dozen” list of food additives: http://www.ewg.org/research/ewg-s-dirty-dozen-guide-food-additives/food-additives-linked-health-risks.

        I also went to go poke around in PubMed (the database of peer-reviewed scientific & medical literature), and couldn’t find anything that could imply that the safer sourcing is less correlated with cancer. Not really surprising. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see research being done comparing the antimicrobial properties of the conventional curing process vs. naturally occurring nitrates like celery powder. Perhaps it’s a harbinger of future research taking the next step to find out whether the natural curing agents are safer or not. But in the meantime, I’ll go with the precautionary principle, and reduce current use. Maybe this isn’t what Applegate was looking for from its sponsored post :)

  28. Thanks so much for the great info! It’s always nice to hear company’s make an attempt to get us better products!

  29. I agree that some nitrates in moderation are probably ok and it may be one of the things often given a worse wrap than it deserves. And eating lunch meats while pregnant is more a concern about listeria than the nitrates/nitrites.

  30. Hi Lisa,
    Thank you so much for this post. I have been wanting to read more about nitrites and this post covers everything so well. Thank you for everything you do! You are awesome and I check your website almost daily:)

  31. We have been avoiding added nitrates/nitrites for about 10 years. My husband suffers from migraines and we found that after consumption, the additives would cause a pretty bad migraine. He has many triggers and these are, without a doubt, one of them.

    1. Hi Ellen
      My son gets migraines from nitrates also. Has your husband tried naturally occurring nitrates? Just curious as to how he reacts to those.
      Rebecca

      1. Rebecca,
        He has done extremely well with natural nitrites/nitrates. He also takes a daily magnesium supplement. I once read about a connection between magnesium deficiency and migraines. He went from having a migraine once a month to now maybe twice a year. Be sure to only take magnesium and not the calcium combo. Too much added calcium is bad for your heart. Hope this helps.

  32. As always, a wonderfully informative article. You have helped our family move away from processed foods and factory-farmed meats, eggs, and dairy products. Our availability of Applegate products is very limited in our area. It either sells out very quickly or our stores only stock the Half-Time kits. We rely heavily on our local ranches for our hot dogs and bacon.

  33. Thank you for writing this informative post. I have been purchasing some lunch meat and hot dogs for my picky 4 year old and it’s nice to have this information as I make my choices. I have come to like your website and I enjoy your approach in writing. That is, here are facts and information, the choices I make and why, now go and make your own choices. It’s refreshing!

    1. Disclaimer:I’m not a doctor but my husband has had attacks so I have done a lot of research. Gout can be cause by a diet high in purines,which are found in most meats and shellfish as well as some vegetables and legumes. People who have gout have to limit meat in general, not just lunchmeat. I have never heard or read anything specifically about lunchmeat causing gout.

  34. I was wondering if lunchmeat can cause Gout?Also how many times a week would you give an approved lunchmeat sandwhich in the kids lunch?

    1. I have not heard that about gout – I would check your sources on that one. Also, we eat lunchmeat/bacon/etc. probably on average of once a month.

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