Being a frequent shopper at Trader Joe’s, I happened to run across bacon that was being advertised as “nitrite” and “nitrate” free. Now I love bacon. Bacon is one of the most nutrient dense foods out there. I’m not going to get into the whole “saturated fat is deadly” thing. Here are some resources to look at if you still think saturated fat is unhealthy. If you’re complaining about the sodium content of bacon, here are some resources that clear up that myth,
Now that all that fat and sodium nonsense is clear, lets look at the other bullshi’t. 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 tell you that if you’re looking to commit suicide the fun way, then bacon is the way to go.
The funny thing is that the study that originally connected nitrates with cancer 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. Mind fucked yet? Let’s explore this issue further.
The Truth About Nitrates and Nitrites
The reality is that most of the nitrate/nitrite exposure we get comes different 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 bacon and cured meats from your diet, you might want to address your celery intake. Oh, and stop making out with your partner……
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. So pick your, um, “poison”…….yeah….right..
It’s important to understand that neither nitrate nor nitrite accumulate in body. Nitrate eaten 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. (5, 6)
The point here is that science does not support the myth that nitrates and nitrites are harmful in any way and may 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) The new 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 play an important function in the human body, improving blood pressure and reducing heart attack risk. (9, 10, 11) Nitrates may also help boost the immune system and protect against pathogenic bacteria (12, 13, 14)
Everyone. Please think twice before rushing into the next health fad. Don’t waste your time or money looking for nitrite or nitrate free items.