Nitrates and nitrites are found in a wide variety of foods, especially meats. In fact, meat is probably the best way to get these chemicals. They’re in everything from chicken, turkey, beef, and fish to breakfast cereals, soft drinks, and even some vegetables. But these chemicals aren’t great for you. They can cause cancer and other health problems—especially in kids.

We all know for sure that eating the right foods is very important to our health and well being. We also know that whole foods are good for our health and the best way to get them into our bodies is to eat them. However, sometimes there are certain situations in which we need to use food as medicine, such as an intolerance to certain foods or illness. In these cases, the medical world has created supplements and medications to help deal with the issue. Nitrate-free or nitrite-free meats are the most common supplement used to treat an intolerance to a particular food.

Most people are familiar with nitrites and nitrates, the two chemicals found in foods like hot dogs, bacon, ham, salami, and sausages. However, these are often assumed to be the same thing. This is not the case. Nitrite preserves meat at high temperatures, while nitrates react with the nitrite to form nitric oxide (NO), a molecule that has many physiological effects in the human body.. Read more about difference between nitrates and nitrites and let us know what you think.

Are you worried about consuming nitrate- and nitrite-containing foods like smoked or processed meats like bacon, ham, and salami? You may have heard that they may cause cancer.

Are you concerned about claims that these chemicals, which occur naturally in many plants, may be beneficial to your health?

With the facts, this guide will help you clear up the misunderstanding and anxiety around nitrates and nitrites.

The good news is that you don’t have to avoid them in your diet any more, and they may even be beneficial to your health. Continue reading to learn why.

What Are the Differences Between Nitrates and Nitrites?

Nitrates and nitrites are nitrogen and oxygen chemicals that exist naturally. Their chemical structure is what distinguishes them. Nitrates are made up of one nitrogen molecule and three oxygen atoms (NO3). Nitrites are made up of one nitrogen molecule and two oxygen atoms (NO2).

There is a nitrate -> nitrite -> nitric oxide pathway in the body, meaning that nitrate can be converted to nitrite, which in turn can be converted to nitric oxide (NO).

While nitrates and nitric oxide are generally stable, nitrites and nitric oxide are not. For instance, under some situations. B. Nitrosamines are formed when nitrite/nitric oxide is transformed to chemicals called nitrosamines during high-temperature cooking. They tarnish the reputation of nitrates.

The possibility that nitrates and nitrites have positive effects on the body is alarming. However, one of their by-products, nitrosamines, has been proven to be probably carcinogenic, indicating that repeated exposure to high quantities may induce cell cancer.


Nitrates and nitrites are naturally occurring chemical molecules that may be helpful to one’s health. Nitrate/nitrite may be transformed into nitrosamines via a variety of processes, which might have potentially severe health consequences.

Nitrates and Nitrites Sources

Nitrates/nitrites are found naturally in human systems, particularly in the saliva, intestines, and blood.

In our bodies, the pathway nitrate -> nitrite -> nitric oxide is involved in cell signaling, blood pressure regulation, and the functioning of the digestive system.

Nitrates/nitrites may be found in a variety of foods, including vegetables, processed foods, meats, cheese, water, cosmetics, alcoholic drinks, rubber, air pollution, and cigarette smoke.

Human civilizations have used nitrates/nitrites to preserve, taste, and prevent oxidation and browning of smoked meats and other meals for over two thousand years, including the Romans and the Chinese. Do you know what saltpeter is? This is one of the most frequent nitrate/nitrite addition methods throughout history.

Processed meats, such as bacon, ham, hot dogs, and sausages, are often blamed for being high in nitrates and nitrites. However, innovative polymerisation techniques have made it feasible to decrease the active nitrate level of these products considerably in recent years. Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which prevents the production of nitrosamines, is one approach.

Only approximately 6% of all jerky sources are now available to the ordinary individual. You may be shocked to discover that fresh fruits and vegetables provide 85 percent of the nitrates and 30 percent of the nitrites you consume.


Humans, soil, water, fruits, and vegetables all contain nitrates and nitrites in their natural state. They’re also used as preservatives and taste enhancers in meat and processed meals. New drying techniques have substantially decreased the nitrate/nitrite level of dried beef in recent years.

Why Are Nitrates and Nitrites So Frightening to Us?

What are the dangers of nitrates and nitrites?

In the 1940s and 1950s, it was well known that drinking water had very high levels of nitrates and nitrites, such as. For example, polluted well water near farms may be deadly to fish, animals, and small children.

Concerns regarding the safety of nitrates/nitrites added to processed meats have been increasing for decades, dating back to the 1970s when scientists believed that nitrosamines formed from nitrites were related to oral and stomach malignancies.

Concerns regarding the possible carcinogenicity of nitrosamines have grown in recent decades as a result of animal and laboratory research.

However, the epidemiological and observational studies performed during those years were contradictory, and the effects that did indicate a link were tiny, virtually insignificant.

In recent years, no connection between mouth and stomach cancer and a 1.5 risk of thyroid and brain cancers has been discovered. (It’s worth remembering that epidemiological dietary results with a risk of less than 2.0 are often statistical noise rather than real cause and effect.)

This implies that individuals who ate the most nitrate-containing processed meat had a 1.5-fold higher risk of cancer than those who ate the least. (By comparison, the risk ratio between smoking and lung cancer is always higher than 20, implying that individuals who smoke regularly for years are 20 times more likely to get lung cancer than those who do not.)

However, the World Health Organization’s cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), categorized processed meat as carcinogenic to humans (and red meat as possibly carcinogenic) in 2015.

With such low risk ratios, it’s impossible to rule out other variables that may have affected research findings, such as, as the Red Meat Guide points out. Sugar intake, alcohol use, smoking, lack of exercise, and so forth are examples. The term for this is “healthy user bias.”

Many scientists have challenged the IARC’s conclusion since 2015, claiming that excellent research cannot establish a direct connection between processed meat and cancer. They believe that processed meat’s designation as a carcinogen should be reviewed.

According to a review and meta-analysis of cohort studies published in 2019, extremely poor evidence (low reliability) indicates that cutting processed meat intake by three servings per week is linked with a very modest decrease in total lifetime cancer mortality.

Processed meat warnings fail a scientific test.


Based on limited observational evidence, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorized nitrates and nitrites in processed beef as carcinogenic in 2015. Many scientific experts have questioned this contentious judgment in recent years. They believe that the carcinogen designation should be reconsidered, and that nitrates and nitrites in processed meat presently offer little or no cancer risk.

Potential Nitrate/Nitrite Health Benefits

Is it true that consuming nitrates and nitrites is beneficial for your health? It is, according to recent studies.

According to a 2018 meta-analysis of human research, nitrate/nitrite intake has the following positive impacts on cardiovascular health:

  • At repose, the pressure drops.
  • The blood vessel wall’s function has improved.
  • Blood vessel inflammation is lessened.
  • vasoconstriction
  • arterial stiffness decrease
  • a reduced chance of blood clots

According to the authors of a 2018 research, including nitrates in one’s diet or taking them as a supplement may be a straightforward way to lower cardiovascular disease risk factors. This is most likely due to nitrogen oxide conversion.

Some experts have even come to the contentious conclusion that nitrates and nitrites can be considered nutrients since they, like vitamins, are converted to nitric oxide in the body.

Other experts, on the other hand, believe the findings are still ambiguous and that more study is required to establish the advantages and risks of nitrates for heart health.

Researchers emphasize the significance of appropriate dosage, much as they do with vitamins. Too much nitrate may be detrimental to one’s health, while too little can result in a nitrate deficiency. It’s important to remember that it’s the nitrosamines that should be avoided, not the nitrates and nitrites.

The availability of nitrates, such as those found in beetroot concentrate or spinach juice, is critical in sports for a variety of reasons. Some studies indicate that dietary nitrates have a role in enhancing endurance, decreasing muscular fatigue, increasing contractile muscle strength, and improving athletic performance, but the findings are preliminary and often ambiguous.


Over the past decade, the pathway of nitrate -> nitrite -> nitric oxide has been increasingly viewed as beneficial to human health. The status of nitrates/nitrites changes from potentially carcinogenic compounds to potentially beneficial nutrients, especially for cardiovascular health and muscle function. However, more conclusive studies are needed.

Reduce Your Exposure to Nitrosamines

You generally don’t need to give up veggies or processed meats simply because they may contain nitrates or nitrites if you prefer to eat a variety of meals.

Meat manufacturers are now obliged by law to keep the quantity of nitrates and nitrites in their products to a minimum. To prevent the development of nitrosamines, most of them now include vitamin C in their products.

The following steps may help you avoid nitrates from becoming nitrosamines, limiting your exposure to unstable and possibly deadly nitrosamines.

  1. Pay attention to the technique of preparation: Nitrosamines are produced less often when food is cooked slowly and at lower temperatures. Neither charring nor frying should be used. It also lowers exposure to heterocyclic amines, which are potentially carcinogenic chemicals (HA). Bacon cooked in a microwave oven converted nitrosamine at a lesser rate than bacon cooked in a skillet, according to a 1970s research.
  2. Take vitamin C and E, for example: It has been known for three decades that the presence of vitamin C or other antioxidants like vitamin E inhibits the conversion of nitrite into unstable nitrosamines. Although it is unknown to what degree this benefits the human digestive system, vitamin-rich meals should be completely safe to consume. Peppers, spinach, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are low-carb foods rich in vitamin C. Sunflower seeds or oil, avocados, asparagus, almonds, beets, and kale are all high in vitamin E.
  3. Look at the labels: Although meat manufacturers must now restrict the quantity of synthetic nitrates/nitrites in their products and add vitamin C if they utilize so-called natural sources, such as celery juice, these goods may still be labeled as organic or without added nitrates. In reality, these meals may contain higher levels of nitrates than traditionally processed meats, and they may not be as efficient in inhibiting bacterial development.
  4. Do not smoke or chew tobacco: What is the most common voluntary cause of nitrosamine exposure? Tobacco. Instead of worrying about nitrosamines forming from nitrates in your diet, eliminate tobacco products to significantly limit your exposure to possibly carcinogenic nitrosamines.


When it comes to nitrates/nitrites, the recommendation to avoid them in order to decrease cancer risk does not stand up.

The majority of nitrate/nitrite consumption nowadays comes from fresh fruits and vegetables. The quantity of added nitrates in processed meat is now carefully controlled, and it is much lower than it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

In summary, you don’t have to be concerned about their existence in your diet. If you’re still concerned, these four recommendations will help you reduce your nitrosamine exposure.

Valerie Goldstein, RD, compiled this handbook with Anne Mullens’ help and approval.

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Additional Information

Endotoxins are found in many foods, especially those that contain protein, and are released in the digestive tract during digestion. Endotoxins are toxins, and some of them are not very good. They can cause irritation, as well as gastroenteritis and other stomach problems.. Read more about nitrate-free diet and let us know what you think.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is worse nitrates or nitrites?

Nitrites are worse than nitrates because they can cause methemoglobinemia.

How do nitrates and nitrites cause cancer?

Nitrates and nitrites are chemicals that can cause cancer when ingested in large amounts.

What are nitrates and why are they important?

Nitrates are a type of salt that is found in many vegetables and fruits. They are important because they provide the body with nitric oxide, which helps to regulate blood pressure and can help prevent heart disease.

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