“Nitrates” certainly don’t sound like anything you’d want to serve for dinner. The word evokes thoughts of fertilizer, or perhaps gunpowder, among most people. The term nitrate derives from the element nitrogen; a common component of the air you breathe. Nitrogen combines with many other elements in nature to make compounds that are fundamental to life.
Among these atomic partners are simple oxygen molecules. When three oxygen molecules bond with nitrogen, for example, you get nitrate (technically, nitrate ion). Remove two oxygens and you get nitric oxide (NO, for short). This simple pairing of an oxygen and nitrogen atom is of fundamental importance to human health. That’s because our bodies use this small molecule to signal our blood vessels to relax.
Nature’s Chill Pill
While getting your arteries to chill out may not sound like a top health priority, in fact NO is an important signaling molecule used by the body to regulate blood pressure. When there’s plenty of NO available, the body does a good job of encouraging the thin layer of muscle cells lining our arteries to lighten up and relax. This enables our blood vessels to open wide, allowing blood to flow freely—under reduced pressure.
When vessels routinely become constricted, due to stress, poor diet, excess weight, lack of exercise, medications, etc., it’s extremely important to have adequate supplies of the raw materials the body needs to make ample NO. High blood pressure is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
And that’s where nitric oxide-promoting foods come in. Research shows that people who eat a diet rich in natural vegetable sources of nitrates have higher levels of available NO circulating in their bloodstreams, and significantly lower blood pressure. Best of all, the blood-pressure-lowering effects of these foods only affect people with blood pressure that’s too high to begin with (a potentially dangerous condition called hypertension).
Despite sounding like something you’d dump on your tomatoes to make them grow, dietary nitrates are valuable nutrients found in certain foods such as raw beets, arugula, and spinach. They serve as a precursor—or raw material—your body uses to generate its own on-demand supply of NO.
Nature’s Way Is Often Best
Some of the confusion surrounding the relative value of nitrates in the diet stems from their occasional use as preservatives. Deli meats, for example, have gained a bad reputation for frequently containing nitrites as preservatives. These related compounds can form far more harmful compounds, called nitrosamines, under certain conditions. Nitrosamines are known carcinogens, so they should be avoided scrupulously.
This may at least partially explain why diets featuring plenty of red meat—and especially processed meats—have invariably been shown to be less healthful than diets that avoid processed meat consumption. High consumption of deli meats is linked to an increased risk of stomach and esophageal cancers, among other negative health effects, for example.
But the nitrates present in dark green leafy vegetables, and raw beets, are not only not harmful, they’re clearly quite good for you. This often proves to be the case in nature. Natural pigment compounds, for example, are among the most potent natural anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in the body. Dark red, deep blue, vibrant yellow, mellow orange—all of these primary-color pigments occur in nature, usually in plants, and they’re invariably good for you. It’s the reason we’re encouraged to eat a variety of naturally colorful foods.
But the pigments used by the food industry to add pizzazz to their processed products are often derived from petroleum products—and let’s just say that while the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally recognizes these synthetic pigments to be safe, laboratory evidence suggests otherwise. Although it remains controversial, some concerned experts point to evidence that consumption of artificial food dyes is linked to hyperactivity among children, even among children not already diagnosed with a hyperactivity disorder.
The bottom line is this: nitrates from fresh plant foods are highly desirable. Foods with nitrites added as preservatives are not. Eat more of the former, and less of the latter, for optimal health.
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