Nitrates and nitrites are found naturally in vegetables and fruits. Your body can benefit a lot from what they offer. Another use nitrates and nitrites serve is meat preservation.

Meat is one of the popular animal products many individuals are addicted to. Beef, pork, turkey, and duck meat help us make the yummiest meals. But have you ever wondered what makes meat have a long shelf life? Nitrite and nitratesare effective ways of preserving meat. For a while, there has been a hot debate on whether or not these two compounds are harmful to the body. So, what do you think, do nitrates and nitrates have positive or negative health consequences?

What are nitrates?

If you’re a keen observer, you’ll notice nitrateis a common term in the ingredient lists for specificprocessed products. It usually refers to a combination of nitrogen and oxygen compounds. More commonly, you’ll find them in cured meats but are naturally present in green leafyvegetables and fruits.

How is nitrate linked to nitrite?

Nitrate cannot be broken down by stomach acid on its own. First, the gut biome breaks down nitrate into nitrite. A nitrite can turn into a nitrate through oxidation, andnitrate can convert into nitrite by a reduction process. These two are different in many ways. In food context, they’re both commonly usedpreservations to inhibit harmful bacteria in ham, bacon, and other meat types. With all complaintsabout unhealthy effects of processed meats, you may think it’s the main source of nitrates available in our diet. By contrast, less than 20%of nitrates is obtainedfrom meat while over 80% come from vegetables. Vegetables get nitrates and nitrites from soil. Nitrateis an element of natural mineral deposits and nitrites are part of soil microorganisms responsible for breaking down animal matter.

What is the importance of nitrate and nitrate?

When you consume certain vegetables like beets which are high sources of nitrates, the body breaks them into nitritesand finally into nitric oxide. Nutrition in nitrites is one of the most confusing topic to argue about. There is a great contradiction between carcinogenic effects of consuming processed meats and theuseful abilities of blood-dilating offered by certain vegetables.

On the beneficial side, nitrites are important to the body. These compounds are life-enhancing and provide nitric oxide necessary to keep your blood vessels dilated andreduce the risks of high blood pressure. Nitrites loaded in vegetables increases oxygen efficiency and distribution by dilating blood vessels, which leads to;

  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Lowered age-related declination of cognitive abilities
  • Increased blood flow in individuals with peripheral Artery Disease
  • Improved breathing in individuals with COPD(Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

What are the harmful effects of nitrates and nitrites?

The question you might be asking yourself is if nitrites are beneficial to the body, how is it that they become harmful when eaten in meat? Nitrate is a water-soluble chemical and inorganic in nature. In a day, your body produces about 62 mg of nitrites and most of the nitrates come from what you eat.Concerning processed meat, the issue is not the nitrites themselves, rather, it’s how they are converted. The conversion process involves nitrites getting converted into nitrosamines which is a powerful carcinogen. According to experts, nitrosamines are produced when nitrites are consumed andplants are absent. Phytonutrients present in plants helpto prevent nitrosamine formation. Meat lack phytonutrients and so anytime nitrites are used to preserve meat and serve as colorings, nitrosamines are formed in large amounts.

What are the health risks of nitrosamine?

There is a strong connection between nitrosamines and cancer. Consuming processed meat will expose you to cancers like leukemia, bladder, testicular, prostate, kidney, and endometrial. Nitrate and nitrite become highly carcinogenic when combined with heat and protein.

Which foods contain healthynitrites and nitrates?

Foods rich in nitrates more than 1000mg, include raw or freshly cooked spinach, fresh parsley, raw lettuce and celery, and canned beetroot. Foods that have low concentrations of about 100to 450mg amount of nitrates include cabbage, broccoli, banana, strawberries, cucumber, salami, pumpkin, and potato crisps. Also, white wine has 10mg/kg of nitrates. Drinking water has both nitrates and nitrites. However, its level isbelow the recommended WHO’s guideline amounts of 3mg/L for nitrite and 50mg/Lfor nitrite.

Which foods contain unhealthy nitrites and nitrates?

Hot dogs

Hot dogs are among the most processed type of meat available in the market. A medium hot dogof 100g contains around 50mcg of nitrate, which is about 9mcg of nitrites.


Ham is a popular source of dietary nitrates. Often it’s considered the mother of nitrates among all types of meat. A 100g of cured ham has 890mcg of nitrates and this explainsthe iconic pink color observed in cured hams.

Deli meat

Deli meat is also a major source of dangerous nitrates. Acured type of 100g has 500mcg whileuncured deli meat of the same size has around 300mcg of nitrates.


Bacon is a favorite food for many, yet it contains high content of harmful nitrates. A 100g has 380mcg of nitrate and it’s also very high in nitrite compounds. Although some manufacturers may claim and even label their product as nitrite-free, don’t be fooled. Even bacon labeledfree from nitrite still contains high amounts of this harmful compound.

What’s the recommended amount of nitrate and nitrite?

There is no specific daily recommendation of these compounds because nitrates and nitrites are not regarded as nutrients. However, some research suggests that in a day,you should not consume 260mg per 70kg adult for nitrate while your nitrite daily intake should not be more than 0.07 per kg. To be safe,consume a balanced and nutritious diet that is loaded with enough fruits, legumes, and vegetables.


Are nitrates and nitrites harmful or beneficial to the body? let’s wrap it up. These two compoundsare only harmless when they’re obtained from healthy sources like vegetables and fruits. However, they’re highly carcinogenic compounds when mixed with processed meat. You’ll be at high risk of cancers if you consume lots of processed meat like bacon and ham due to their high levels of nitrates and nitrites. To stay healthy, use plant sources to obtain nitrates and nitrites and avoid processed proteins.

Elena Ognivtseva

Elena Ognivtseva

Nutritionist, Cornell University, MS I believe that nutrition science is a wonderful helper both for the preventive improvement of health and adjunctive therapy in treatment. My goal is to help people improve their health and well-being without torturing themselves with unnecessary dietary restrictions. I am a supporter of a healthy lifestyle – I play sports, cycle, and swim in the lake all year round. With my work, I have been featured in Vice, Country Living, Harrods magazine, Daily Telegraph, Grazia, Women's Health, and other media outlets.