Sodium nitrate and Sodium nitrite are chemicals that have been used in food especially to preserve meat for centuries. These chemicals are also used in other foods as preservatives, antimicrobial agents as well as flavouring agents.
Nitrates are not harmful, but can easily be converted to nitrites. This conversion occurs at high temperatures e.g. frying cured meat at high temperatures.
It is well known that nitrites combine with amines to form nitrosoamines which are known to be dangerous cancer-causing compounds.
Food in which nitrites are most commonly found
Most of processed meat.
There is a heated debate on whether nitrites (or any other food additive) is safe or unsafe. However, there are strong reasons to avoid nitrites in food.
Reasons why you should consider avoiding nitrites in your foods
- Brain tumour in Children:Children born by mothers who consume high quantities of cured meat (cured with nitrites) during pregnancy have 2-3 time risk of developing brain tumour than those born by mothers who do not consume cured meat.
- Cancer: Nitrites have been shown to contribute to a number of cancers. These include: Stomach cancer, Pancreatic cancer and Colorectal Cancer
- DNA mutations: Consumption of cured hot dogs have been shown to have compounds that cause DNA-mutation. If DNA mutations occur, they can cause cancer.
Ways to minimise foods with nitrites
- Avoid all processed meat such as hot dogs, sausages, luncheon meats, bacon, canned beef etc. If you have to consume processed meat, look for nitrite-free processed meats which can be found in the frozen and refrigerated meat section in supermarkets. These mostly do not require nitrites for preservation.
- Check the label for nitrite-free products.
- Look for meat cured with sugar or other curing agents.
- Drink orange juice (during breakfast when taking bacon) or vitamin C while taking foods with nitrites. This prevents nitrites converting to nitrosoamines.
Does it mean you should never eat processed meat?
If you can, avoid processed meat like plague. In addition, to high levels of nitrites or nitrosoamines, processed meat pose big health problem of being high in Sodium (from Sodium chloride) and high in fat.
Other sources of nitrates and nitrites
Leafy vegetables and root vegetables contain naturally occurring nitrates which are considered to be safe. These vegetables include: Lettuce: spinach, cabbage,beets, radishes and carrots
One major source of harmful nitrites is water due fertilisers and other pollutants carelessly drained into rivers.