understanding the label: “nitrite and nitrate free”…is it necessary?

the elusive “no nitrites or nitrates added” or “nitrite and nitrate free” label.

what does it mean?

should you be looking for it?

after my research…the jury is still (kind of) out.

keep reading to find out why.

What popular foods use synthetic nitrites and nitrates?

Your breakfast and deli meats.

Why are they in meats?

(1) preservation (2) flavor (3) maintain the pink color (without them your meats would be grey) (4) prevent growth of bacteria

What are nitrates?

During photosynthesis, nitrates (chemical compound) are formed when plants break down nitrogen.

What are nitrites? 

When nitrates come into contact with certain bacteria, they break down into nitrites (another chemical compound).

So are they natural?

Yes, nitrites and nitrates do occur naturally. They are also produced synthetically, seen as “sodium nitrite/nitrate” in your meat products.

If they are produced during photosynthesis, are we getting nitrates from our vegetables?

Absolutely. There high levels of nitrates in leafy vegetables. Studies have shown that 80-90% of our nitrate consumption is from vegetables. However, consumption of the nitrites/nitrates from your veggies is different than the nitrites/nitrates from your meat.

So should I stop eating vegetables?

Of course not. Vegetables contain wonderful vitamins and nutrients that our bodies need. Moderation and variety, is key.

(Note: There is an age at which infants should not be consuming carrots, spinach, or other high nitrate/nitrate vegetables. There are also specific, recommended ways of vegetable preparation for adults and especially babies, seen here.)

How are meats that are “nitrite and nitrate free” still pink?

Meat companies have developed a natural way to produce the naturally occurring nitrates and nitrates by combing celery powder and sea salt. See for yourself on the back of your “nitrate free” product.

So do “nitrite and nitrate free” products contain nitrites and nitrates?

Yes.  The celery powder is the source of nitrates, therefore, companies can claim that their product is “nitrite and nitrate” free. Without any nitrates, meat would be a grey color.

Can organic products contain synthetic sodium nitrate?


Is there an advantage to buying products that have synthetic sodium nitrate?

As with anything synthetic, they seem to be “super efficient” at what they do, especially seen in preservation.

So what is the concern with nitrites and nitrates?

1. Nitrosamines

Amines and nitrites can break down to produce a product called a nitrosamine. Many nitrosamines are known carcinogens, especially when cooked at high temperatures.

For reasons still being understood, nitrosamines were shown to be decreased in microwaved bacon and increased when the bacon was cooked at high temperatures (or burnt) in a pan.

However, the amount  of nitrosamines found in humans after eating cured meat is still being investigated. There has been no direct link to carcinogenesis and nitrosamines in humans (however there have been many in test animals).

There have been links to diabetes and Alzheimers.

2. Methemoglobinemia- A condition where the hemoglobin in RBCs (Red Blood Cells) loses the ability to carry oxygen. Has been shown to happen in children after consumption of nitrates- and their conversion into nitrites. Strangely enough, it hasn’t been shown to occur when high amounts of nitric containing vegetables are ingested. This suggests a difference in synthetically produced nitrites/nitrates and those that are naturally occurring.

3. A higher intake of dietary nitrate has been shown to increase Thyroid Cancer in men and female smokers (Something else to think about: studies have also shown this to be true from nitrates in the water supply0.

4. Cured meats (being high in nitrites) have shown to increase odds of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

5. Could cause DNA damage (an article that doesn’t have supportable conclusions, but have no basis as to why that is the case).

The National Academy of Sciences Committee looked into the use of nitrites and recommended a search for an alternative preservative.

Are there advantages of nitrites? 

Some advantages of nitrites in meats can be found here. Oddly enough, the article was written by the American Meat Institute.

The main advantages have been found in your vegetables. Here are some links that show advantages of nitrites and nitrates in your vegetables 

What is being done to regulate nitrites and nitrates?

The FDA created guidelines for the amounts of allowed nitrites and nitrates. The USDA monitors proper use (no more than 200 ppm).

Currently, nitrates, in appropriate amounts,  have the GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status.

So now what?

(1) cook your bacon wisely (best method would be to bake it in the oven at 275 degrees. second best is the microwave).

(2) choose for yourself if you want to eat bacon or deli meat with synthetic nitrites/nitrates or naturally occurring nitrites/nitrates. in my opinion, one link, one study, is enough to steer me clear of synthetics.

(3) stop eating deli meats and cured meats altogether

(4) there is evidence that vitamin c helps block the carcinogenic effect of nitrosamines. so eat an orange with  your bacon.

so, as with everything in this blog, my goal is to help you become more aware of your options.

as always, the decision rests in your hands.



i would be lost without my research partner

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