Words of the Day: Nitrate and Nitrite

Part of your journey towards eating real food is discovering what your food is made up of - both good stuff and bad stuff. Once you tune in to labels and learn where your food comes from, you can simplify by buying more foods with fewer ingredients, and getting as much as you can from local farmers.

Today and tomorrow we're talking lunch meat. Tomorrow I'll be discussing alternatives to nitrate-ridden, factory-farmed lunch meats. In preparation for that, let's talk about nitrates and nitrites.

First, please know that I am not a scientist, nor do I claim to have all the answers. I'm just a wife and mom trying to feed my family as healthfully as possible.

Nitrate and nitrite are chemicals that are used in the curing process in lunch meats, bacon, pepperoni, ham, and hot dogs.

According to the Applegate Farms FAQ's: "Nitrates (NO3) are naturally occurring compounds that are created when plants break down nitrogen during photosynthesis. When nitrates come in contact with certain bacteria they break down into nitrites."

So nitrates are "naturally occurring." They aren't just in cured meats; they are also found in vegetables and in our water. Our body naturally converts some of them into nitrites. This is not harmful. Nitrites turn into nitric oxide which can lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation. (source)

But sodium nitrite is added to cured meats.

From a report on Nitrite in Meat by the University of Minnesota:

Sodium nitrite, rather than sodium nitrate, is most commonly used for curing (although in some products, such as country ham, sodium nitrate is used because of the long aging period). In a series of normal reactions, nitrite is converted to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide combines with myoglobin, the pigment responsible for the natural red color of uncured meat. They form nitric oxide myoglobin, which is a deep red color (as in uncooked dry sausage) that changes to the characteristic bright pink normally associated with cured and smoked meat (such as wieners and ham) when heated during the smoking process.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but part of what I'm reading here is that when we consume naturally occurring nitrates, the process of nitrate>nitrite>nitric oxide happens in our bodies. When nitrate or nitrite is added to meat, that process happens during the curing of the meat.

Foods can be cured using salt and naturally occurring nitrates such as those found in celery juice and sea salt, but adding nitrate or nitrite is supposed to help prevent botulism and makes the meat a brighter red color. These curing agents also give the characteristic cured meat flavor we are used to. Apparently their naturally occurring cousins just don't cut it (even though, for thousands of years, people just used salt to preserve meat). No botulism and more appealing food sound like good things, but there is a potential problem in using nitrate or nitrite in the curing process. These chemicals can form nitrosamine, a known carcinogen. Yuck.

Now, I simply don't know if there is a difference in how our body deals with nitrate and nitrite depending on whether it comes as an isolated chemical or in the form of celery juice and sea salt. But I certainly like the idea of it coming from real food. (How's that for scientific?)

My mother-in-law (a very wise woman!) always made sure her boys drank some orange juice if they were eating cured meats containing nitrate or nitrite. The vitamin C, if consumed at the same time as nitrate, prevents your body from forming nitrosamines during digestion! You could also eat an orange or grapefruit or tomato with your meal for the same effect. And apparently the FDA requires that ascorbic acid be added to cured meat for that purpose. (Wow, go FDA! It's not every day that I say that...)

So, the jury is still out on how harmful these suckers are. I'm choosing to avoid them if possible, but that won't stop me from ordering bacon with my eggs at a restaurant (preferably one that uses meat and eggs from local, sustainable farms.) Whatever you may think of this nitrate business, there may be other reasons to think twice about grabbing that package of honey ham at the grocery store. We'll talk about that tomorrow, and I'll give you some simple ideas for lunch meat alternatives. See you then!

This is part of Simple Lives Thursday. Check it out!


  1. Very interesting article. Found out recently that a university in the U.K have linked sandwich meats directly to bowel cancer. I live in Ireland where ham is a very much loved sandwich meat that is eaten almost every day by most people. Bowel cancer is the 2nd most prevelent cancer in Ireland.

  2. Anonymous, that is so interesting about the link between sandwich meats and bowel cancer! One more reason to eat less of them!