Although we have all heard about nitrates in food additives, it seems that this topic has not been fully clarified. First of all, it is important to emphasize that there is a difference between nitrites and nitrates and that not all of them are necessarily harmful to human health. Today we are revealing the truth about what nitrates really are. Stay tuned for the rest of this guide.
What Are Nitrates?
Nitrates are compounds composed of nitrogen and oxygen, naturally found in soil and water. They are important for human health and industrial processes. In agriculture, nitrates are commonly found in fertilizers, where they serve as a source of essential nitrogen for plant growth. However, excess nitrates in soil can lead to water pollution when they leach into groundwater or runoff into rivers and streams, causing environmental damage.
Nitrates are present in foods like vegetables, processed meats, fish, cereals, beverages, and even drinking water. In the body, nitrates can be converted into nitric oxide (NO), a molecule with important physiological functions, including the regulation of blood pressure and blood flow. While nitrates are essential for plant growth and have various beneficial effects on human health, excessive nitrate intake can pose health risks.
Through a chemical reaction, nitrates can be converted into harmful compounds called nitrosamines. This reaction occurs when nitrates or nitrites come into contact with amines or amino acids, often under high-temperature or acidic conditions. This reaction leads to the formation of nitrosamines, which are classified as probably carcinogenic substances. In food processing and cooking, nitrate-containing additives can react with the naturally occurring amines in the meat, increasing the risk of nitrosamine formation. To reduce this risk, use food preparation methods that minimize high heat and avoid processed meat.
The Link Between Nitrates and Cardiovascular Health
The most researched function of nitrates is their link to cardiovascular health. Symbiotic bacteria in the saliva and stomach convert nitrates into nitric oxide (NO). This transformation is crucial because nitric oxide relaxes and widens blood vessels. This process, known as vasodilation, is important for cardiovascular health. By dilating blood vessels, nitric oxide enhances blood flow and reduces blood pressure. That ultimately reduces the strain on the heart and lowers the risk of heart disease.
Nitrates, such as nitroglycerin, are prescribed to manage cardiovascular conditions like angina pectoris. That dangerous medical condition is characterized by chest pain due to reduced blood flow to the heart. Medications containing nitrates increase nitric oxide levels, which leads to vasodilation and relief from angina symptoms. A diet rich in natural nitrates can also reduce hypertension risk and improve heart health. However, harmful nitrosamine formation can counteract these benefits.
Foods High in Nitrates
Nitrates are naturally occurring in different types of food. Leafy green vegetables like spinach, arugula, and kale are at the top of the list. Root vegetables such as beets and carrots are also rich sources of nitrates. A good source of nitrates are also fruits like strawberries, apples, kiwi, and raspberries.
When considering foods high in nitrates, it’s essential to pay special attention to meat products. Processed meats like bacon, ham, hot dogs, and sausages are notable sources of nitrates. These nitrates are typically added during the curing process to enhance flavor and extend shelf life. That is why there are many concerns regarding the amount of nitrate in processed meats.
While nitrates from plant-based sources are generally considered beneficial for cardiovascular health, it’s important to moderate the consumption of processed meats, as they are associated with various health risks, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Eating nitrate-rich foods in moderation is important, as well as choosing fresh and unprocessed options.
How Can Antioxidants Help?
Antioxidants counteract the toxicity of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that are generated during the conversion of nitrates into nitrites. Antioxidants achieve their potent effects by:
- Reducing oxidative stress: Nitrates can contribute to oxidative stress in the body, which occurs when there’s an imbalance between ROS and antioxidants. This imbalance can damage cells and DNA and lead to various health problems. Antioxidants counteract oxidative stress by neutralizing ROS and preventing their harmful effects.
- Inhibiting nitrosamine formation: Antioxidants can inhibit the reaction of transforming nitrates into nitrites and thereby reduce the formation of nitrosamines.
- Protecting cellular structures: Oxidative stress caused by excessive nitrate or nitrite intake can harm various cellular structures and components. Antioxidants protect these cellular structures and maintain their integrity and functionality.
- Supporting immune function: Oxidative stress can weaken the immune system’s response to pathogens and increase susceptibility to diseases. Antioxidants strengthen the immune system and allow the body to better defend itself against different health threats.
The most powerful antioxidants include polyphenols, vitamins C and E, as well as minerals like selenium and zinc. Foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, are helpful in preventing the toxicity of nitrosamine.
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In case you have faced a dilemma regarding the consumption of nitrates, we hope this guide has made it a little easier for you to make a decision. However, if you carefully choose what foods you eat and get sufficient antioxidant intake, you have no reason to worry.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does nitrate do to the human body?
Nitrates have several effects on the human body:
- Cardiovascular health: Nitrates can be converted into nitric oxide (NO) in the body, a molecule that plays a crucial role in vasodilation. This effect improves blood flow and can contribute to maintaining healthy blood pressure. The vasodilation induced by nitric oxide reduces the strain on the heart and lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension and atherosclerosis.
- Exercise performances: Some athletes use nitrate supplements derived from beetroot juice to enhance exercise performance. Nitric oxide may improve oxygen delivery to muscles, increasing endurance and reducing the perception of effort during physical activities.
- Cognitive function: Nitric oxide also regulates cerebral blood flow. Some studies suggest that nitrate-rich diets may benefit cognitive function and help protect against cognitive decline in older adults.
How much nitrate is toxic?
The World Health Organization has established a provisional maximum acceptable daily intake (ADI) for nitrates of 3.7 milligrams of nitrate per kilogram of body weight per day. This ADI is primarily based on the potential risk of methemoglobinemia, a condition where the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood is reduced.
The toxicity of nitrates can vary depending on an individual’s age, overall health, and the source of exposure. Nitrates themselves are not toxic at normal dietary levels. They become a concern when they are converted into nitrites, which then react with other compounds in the body to form nitrosamines. Therefore, it’s important to monitor nitrate levels in drinking water and to avoid excessive consumption of processed meats, as these can contribute to nitrosamine formation.
Are nitrates cancerous?
Nitrates themselves are not cancerous, but they can contribute to the formation of carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines. Some nitrosamines, like N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) and N-nitrosodiethylamine (NDEA), are classified as probable human carcinogens by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer). Nitrosamines can form when nitrates or nitrites react with certain amines or amino acids under specific conditions, such as high heat or acidic environments during food processing and cooking.