Less than a decade ago, nutrition experts were still debating the relative merits of dietary sources of nitrates. Nitrates are natural compounds found in numerous vegetables and fruits. But a related family of chemicals, the nitrites, may contribute to an increased risk of certain types of disease. These chemicals are found in preserved, processed and deli meats, such as hot dogs.
The vibrant “fresh” colors of deli meats such as corned beef are due to the use of sodium nitrite, for example. While sodium nitrite can serve as a useful preservative, when cooked at high temperatures, meats preserved with this chemical may react to form compounds called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines may form under other conditions, too. These compounds are known carcinogens, capable of triggering cancer. In the past, some experts expressed concern that vegetable sources of dietary nitrates might also prove problematic.
Added Nitrites Bad, Natural Nitrates Good
Evidently, nothing could be further from the truth. As often proves to be the case, these compounds from plant foods are indeed healthful, while their artificially added cousins are not. Emerging research continues to mount that dietary nitrates from plant foods are good for you. In fact, they’re now linked to a presumed reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Vegetable and fruit-based dietary nitrates serve as important raw materials the body uses to generate the signaling molecule, nitric oxide (NO). NO plays a key role in regulating blood pressure, due to its ability to signal blood vessel smooth muscle cells to relax. NO also acts to protect the health of the cardiovascular system in other ways.
Some NO is used to inhibit endothelial inflammatory cell recruitment and platelet aggregation, for instance. These effects translate to direct protection against blood vessel inflammation and the formation of clots. The latter are implicated in stroke, and play a role in the development of atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular problems. Accordingly, NO is crucial for maintaining healthy blood pressure and the overall health of the cardiovascular system.
Research shows that when people with elevated blood pressure consume raw beets or beet juice, for example, they experience a significant, beneficial drop in blood pressure. This is due to the high concentration of dietary nitrates contained in raw beets. Beets are not the only foods to supply these key nutrients, however. They’re also found in dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, and in certain fruits.
Fruits of Particular Interest
Nitrates tend to be most concentrated in plant food that are closest to the source; the roots. As such, fruits tend to contain significantly fewer nitrates than, say, root vegetables or leafy greens. Nevertheless, a few fruits provide dietary nitrate. Apples are among these.
Although they do not contribute nitrates directly, research shows that the unique, potent natural antioxidants in pomegranate and pomegranate juice help “enhance the biological functions of nitric oxide”. They accomplish this by preventing the oxidative loss of NO.
Strawberries, Gooseberries, Raspberries and Cherries
Some of the most beloved, brightly colored fruits, including certain berries and cherries, may be top fruit sources of dietary nitrates. Levels of nitrates in fruits tend to vary widely, and may depend on growing conditions, such as whether fertilizer was used, or how much nitrate was dissolved in water used during growth.
Like other fruits, bananas cannot come close to vegetable sources of nitrates, such as beet root, or even spinach. But among fruits, they posses relatively higher amounts of nitrate.
A Final Word About Factors Affecting Cardiovascular Health
It’s interesting to note that not only dietary sources of nitrate play a role in the production of heart-protective NO. Exercise, too, works to boost natural levels of NO at the level of the endothelium—the tissue that lines blood vessels—where heart disease first takes hold. Thus, a truly healthy cardiovascular system depends on two important aspects of lifestyle: diet and exercise.
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