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The Nitrate and Nitrite Myth: Another Reason Not to Fear Bacon


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Beyond just being loaded with “artery-clogging saturated fat” and sodium, bacon has been long considered unhealthy due to the use of nitrates and nitrites in the curing process. Many conventional doctors, and well-meaning friends and relatives, will say you’re basically asking for a heart attack or cancer by eating the food many Paleo enthusiasts lovingly refer to as “meat candy”.

The belief that nitrates and nitrates cause serious health problems has been entrenched in popular consciousness and media. Watch this video clip to see Steven Colbert explain how the coming bacon shortage will prolong our lives thanks to reduced nitrates in our diets.

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In fact, the study that originally connected nitrates with cancer risk and caused the scare in the first place has since been discredited after being subjected to a peer review. There have been major reviews of the scientific literature that found no link between nitrates or nitrites and human cancers, or even evidence to suggest that they may be carcinogenic. Further, recent research suggests that nitrates and nitrites may not only be harmless, they may be beneficial, especially for immunity and heart health. Confused yet? Let’s explore this issue further.

Find out why you shouldn’t be concerned about nitrates & nitrites in bacon.

Where Does Nitrate/Nitrite Exposure Come From?

It may surprise you to learn that the vast majority of nitrate/nitrite exposure comes not from food, but from endogenous sources within the body. (1)

In fact, nitrites are produced by your own body in greater amounts than can be obtained from food, and salivary nitrite accounts for 70-90% of our total nitrite exposure. In other words, your spit contains far more nitrites than anything you could ever eat.

When it comes to food, vegetables are the primary source of nitrites. On average, about 93% of nitrites we get from food come from vegetables. It may shock you to learn that one serving of arugula, two servings of butter lettuce, and four servings of celery or beets all have more nitrite than 467 hot dogs. (2) And your own saliva has more nitrites than all of them! So before you eliminate cured meats from your diet, you might want to address your celery intake. And try not to swallow so frequently.

All humor aside, there’s no reason to fear nitrites in your food, or saliva. Recent evidence suggests that nitrites are beneficial for immune and cardiovascular function; they are being studied as a potential treatment for hypertension, heart attacks, sickle cell and circulatory disorders. Even if nitrites were harmful, cured meats are not a significant source, as the USDA only allows 120 parts per million in hot dogs and bacon. Also, during the curing process, most of the nitrite forms nitric oxide, which binds to iron and gives hot dogs and bacon their characteristic pink color. Afterwards, the amount of nitrite left is only about 10 parts per million.

And if you think you can avoid nitrates and nitrites by eating so-called “nitrite- and nitrate-free” hot dogs and bacon, don’t be fooled. These products use “natural” sources of the same chemical like celery and beet juice and sea salt, and are no more free from nitrates and nitrites than standard cured meats. In fact, they may even contain more nitrates and nitrites when cured using “natural” preservatives.

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What Happens When You Eat Nitrates and Nitrites

It’s important to understand that neither nitrate nor nitrite accumulate in body. Ingested nitrate from food is converted into nitrite when it contacts our saliva, and of the nitrate we eat, 25% is converted into salivary nitrite, 20% converted into nitrite, and the rest is excreted in the urine within 5 hours of ingestion. (3) Any nitrate that is absorbed has a very short half-life, disappearing from our blood in under five minutes. (4) Some nitrite in our stomach reacts with gastric contents, forming nitric oxide which may have many beneficial effects. (56) You can listen to my podcast “Does Red Meat Increase Your Risk of Death?” for more information on this topic.

In general, the bulk of the science suggests that nitrates and nitrites are not problematic and may even be beneficial to health. Critical reviews of the original evidence suggesting that nitrates/nitrites are carcinogenic reveals that in the absence of co-administration of a carcinogenic nitrosamine precursor, there is no evidence for carcinogenesis. (7) Newly published prospective studies show no association between estimated intake of nitrite and nitrite in the diet and stomach cancer. (8) Nitric oxide, formed by nitrite, has been shown to have vasodilator properties and may modulate platelet function in the human body, improving blood pressure and reducing heart attack risk. (91011) Nitrates may also help boost the immune system and protect against pathogenic bacteria (121314)

So what do we take from this? There’s no reason to fear nitrates and nitrites in food. No reason to buy nitrate-free, uncured bacon. No reason to strictly avoid cured meats, particularly those from high quality sources (though it may make sense to limit consumption of them for other reasons). In fact, because of concerns about trichinosis from pork, it makes a lot more sense in my opinion to buy cured bacon and other pork products. I do.

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Join the conversation

  1. The false supposition is that you get the same nitrates and the same amount of nitrates and that your body can handle, the additional amount of excess nitrates, they add to the food. When nitrates are in the food themselves, they have other nutrients which can make the nitrates in them neutral. But if you take nitrates which stand alone, then you’re adding more than your body may be able to digest and you can create an allergic reaction. Personally, I don’t like foods with additional nitrates because of the taste. It leaves a film on my tongue which I don’t like. But thank you for giving me more reasons not to eat those vile vegetables.

    • I think Kresser is paid by the corporations to promote unhealthy life-style base on misinformation. It is not proved yet, but it might some day. Many people think doctors who confirm the patients’ unhealthy habits are the best, yet they are actually often the worst…

  2. Chris, have you seen this new article? They actual highlight this article as “misinformation” about bacon. Your thoughts?

  3. Sir this all might be true unless you have certain genetic mutations in your DNA which makes it almost impossible for certain enzymes to do their job properly. Nitrites do affect these people negatively in many ways by not allowing chemical reactions to take place in the bodies of people with certain mutations. MOA mutations are especially sensitive to this.

  4. I could never figured out why my blood pressure was always normal to low when I was younger. But then I started reading all of the bad stuff about sodium nitrite and stopped eating cured meat for the most part.

    Though I never got the connection until recently, my blood pressure went up and I had seriously high blood pressure readings over the course of maybe 30 years with partially blocked heart arteries. The cod liver oil which I started taking cleared my heart arteries (proof on heart scans) but my blood pressure was still high. Then a few years after I went back to eating cured meat again on 1/18/2017.

    To my surprised, my blood pressure is back down to normal and remained there to this day. So we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize because I come to realize that Sodium Nitrite in meats is being demonized. So yes, I agree with this fellow who posted this blog going on my own experiences.

    However, I can see where sodium nitrites in meats can be a real problem for those with low blood pressure.

  5. The person who wrote the article works in the food industry do not trust the guy who wants to earn a living anyway he can, lieing, and poisoning the world.