Nitrates are found naturally in certain vegetables, most notably beets, bulb vegetables (such as garlic and onions), arugula and carrots. However, they are commonly known for being added to processed meats as a preservative.
Our bodies actually produce nitrates endogenously, which are taken up by the salivary glands and secreted into our saliva, functioning as a natural antimicrobial in the digestive tract. In fact, salivary nitrate makes up about 70-90 percent of our total nitrate exposure. (1)
Nitrate is a salt of nitric acid that can be found naturally in fruits, vegetables and some grains. It is also added to cured meats as a color preservative (as well as a salty flavor) to prevent the growth of pathogens, bacteria and various microorganisms. Sodium nitrate is a salt that is often added to cured meats such as jerky, bacon, hot dogs, sausage, luncheon meats, cured ham and the fan favorite food, bacon!
Nitrates vs. Nitrites
Each compound, nitrates and nitrites, are made up of a single nitrogen atom, which is bound to a varying number of oxygen molecules. Nitrates, for example, are made up of one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms (NO3). Nitrites are made up of one nitrogen atom with two oxygen atoms (NO2). (2)
Naturally occurring nitrates by themselves seem to be relatively harmless, until they are converted into nitrites in the body through the bacteria in our mouth or enzymes in the body. Nitrites can either be converted into nitric oxide or nitrosamines. Note: while nitric oxide is the kind of conversion we want and why beets are popular for their vasodilating properties, most nitrosamines are carcinogenic.
Nitrites, when they turn into nitric oxide, react with the oxygen binding proteins found in meats and can change their color, making cured meats appear pink or red. (3, 4)
Nitrates are converted into nitrite in your body, which can form into nitrosamines. Vitamin C naturally inhibits this conversion from nitrites to nitrosamines, which is why consuming fruits and veggies with nitrates is less problematic for your health than consuming nitrates found in processed meats. (5)
When nitrites lose an oxygen atom it turns into nitric oxide (NO), which has been shown to have cardioprotective and circulatory benefits throughout the body as well as increase blood flow and mitochondrial respiration. (6) Nitric oxide acts like a signaling molecule in the body, which travels throughout the arterial walls telling all the arteries and vessels to relax and dilate, allowing blood flow. Dietary nitrates, such as those found in beets, can reduce blood pressure and dilate blood vessels as well as increase mitochondria function and improve performance in endurance athletes. (7, 8)
When Do Nitrites Become a Problem?
Nitrates can become problematic when they are exposed to high heat when amino acids are present (think of that charred piece of meat you’ve been eyeing all night at your family BBQ). This can turn the nitrates into nitrosamines (found naturally in tobacco smoke as well), which are dangerous carcinogens. (9) This is why vegetables that naturally contain nitrates are less problematic, as they are rarely exposed to such high temperatures of cooking.
Can I Still Eat Bacon?
The good news is that today’s meat contains roughly eighty percent less nitrates than it did several years ago. However, while bacon is a staple in the Paleo diet, as with any meat consumption, quality should be of main concern. The consumption of processed meats has gotten some bad press over the last several years, as it has been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer, specifically in the digestive tract. This is likely due to the nitrates and nitrites found in these preserved meats. (10, 11, 12)
If you are going to eat bacon, be sure that you are consuming quality bacon that is sustainably sourced and is free of nitrates and nitrites. Ideally try to purchase pork and other meats from farmers who pasture-raise their animals and avoid the use of GM feed, antibiotics and hormones. Try and cook your bacon at lower temperatures as well to avoid the formation of nitrosamines (sorry, burnt bacon lovers).
Try shopping at your local farmers market when purchasing your bacon and meat. This gives you a chance to not only support your local farmer, but to also find out how they raise the animals and possibly set up a tour of the actual farm. You can also purchase brands such as Applegate Farms and shop on websites such as US Wellness Meats and Thrive Market to ensure you are getting the best quality meat for all of your Paleo needs.