Have you ever wondered what nitrates are and what foods contain nitrates? Are nitrates linked to any health concerns? If you have questions about nitrates and their role in the food supply, read on to get the truth about nitrates.
What are nitrates?
Nitrates (or nitrites) are natural chemicals that are found in the soil, air and water. Nitrates are also used as a food additive to stop the growth of bacteria and to enhance the flavour and colour of foods.
Where are nitrates found?
Nitrates are naturally found in vegetables such as:
- Radishes and
These foods provide the most nitrates in our diets. However, there is no recommendation to limit vegetables that naturally contain nitrates.
Smaller amounts are found in:
- Dairy products like cheese
- Poultry and
Nitrates are added to these foods to make their appearance and flavour more appealing.
Generally speaking, Canadian’s average daily intake of foods that contain nitrates is within safe limits.
What about nitrates and processed meat?
Nitrates are added to processed meat like:
- Deli meat/cold cuts
- Hot dogs/Wieners
This is done to preserve the product and prevent bacteria from growing. Nitrates also give processed meats their pink colour.
Should I avoid processed meat?
Yes. There is strong research that shows a diet high in processed meats increases the risk of colon cancer. However, it is not yet clear if this is because of the nitrates or other compounds in processed meat. To decrease your risk of colon cancer, it is a good idea to eat very little processed meats or avoid them altogether.
Do organic foods have nitrates?
It depends on the food. Organic foods like vegetables and fruit typically have fewer nitrates compared to conventional foods.
However, processed organic meats do not have nitrates. In Canada, adding nitrates to processed organic meats is not allowed. Read more about organic foods in Canada.
Tips on making nitrate-free food choices
- Avoid foods with ingredients like potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate.
- Avoid foods with the words ‘cured’ or ‘smoked’ on the ingredient list. This means that the food may contain nitrates.
- Avoid processed meat or have them once in awhile. Have a cooked ham during the holidays or an occasional hot dog in the summer.
- Skip the bacon and sausage for breakfast and try fresh fruit or grilled vegetables with your eggs.
- Stuck on lunch ideas? Think beyond the sandwich! Try a vegetable wrap with hummus instead of a deli sandwich. Try other quick and easy lunch ideas for you and your kids.
- Eat vegetarian more often. You might be surprised at how tasty it can be! Learn more about healthy vegetarian meals for you and your family.
- Throwing a party? Avoid party sandwiches that use processed meats and instead try a variety of fresh salads with an assortment of flat breads and dips.
Nitrates are naturally found in some vegetables, dairy products and meat. There is no recommendation to limit foods that naturally contain nitrates. Nitrates are also added to processed meats as a preservative. There is strong research that shows a diet high in processed meats increases the risk of colon cancer. However, it is not yet clear if this is because of the nitrates or other compounds in processed meat. To decrease your risk of colon cancer, it is a good idea to eat very little processed meats or avoid them altogether.
Does the sodium nitrate in processed meat increase my risk of heart disease?
Answers from Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D.
Sodium nitrate, a preservative that’s used in some processed meats, such as bacon, jerky and luncheon meats, could increase your heart disease risk.
It’s thought that sodium nitrate may damage your blood vessels, making your arteries more likely to harden and narrow, leading to heart disease. Nitrates may also affect the way your body uses sugar, making you more likely to develop diabetes.
And you already know that most processed meats are high in sodium and some are high in saturated fat, which can disrupt a heart-healthy diet.
If you eat meat, it’s best to limit processed meat and instead choose lean, fresh meat and poultry, and keep serving sizes small. For greater heart health, consider going one step further and increasing the amount of seafood in your diet.