Don’t feel bad if you’re confused about nitrates and nitrites in food. Are they good, bad, or something else? Unless you majored in chemistry, some uncertainty is understandable. They certainly sound similar. But rest assured there are differences between these compounds.
Nitrates are fairly simple molecules consisting of one nitrogen atom bound to three oxygen atoms. The chemical formula for nitrate is NO3. Nitrite is a molecule that consists of one nitrogen atom bonded with two oxygen atoms: NO2. To further confuse the issue, nitric oxide, which occurs naturally in the body, consists of one nitrogen bonded with one oxygen. This simple gaseous molecule is represented as: NO.
To be clear, NO is good for you. Indeed, it’s crucial. The body uses NO to signal your blood vessels to relax. This helps promote lower blood pressure, and even plays an important role in healthy sexual function.
The Good and The Bad
Nitric Oxide (NO)
NO is a key signaling molecule. When released by the blood vessels themselves, it signals blood vessel muscle cells to relax. This, in turn, lowers blood pressure. That’s important, because high blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the most common—and dangerous—risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Hypertension is often linked to atherosclerosis, the underlying process of inflammation and plaque buildup that accompanies the stiffening and narrowing of blood vessels. Atherosclerosis tends to be a long-term, progressive process.
Some people with atherosclerosis may eventually experience heart attack or stroke. In most cases, they will have experienced hypertension, often for years, as the heart struggles to compensate for partially clogged blood vessels, dysfunction in the endothelium (the tissue lining the interior of blood vessels), and restricted blood flow. Having adequate supplies of NO on hand helps the blood vessels function properly, and may significantly reduce blood pressure.
And that’s where nitrates (NO3) come in. Dietary nitrates are compounds—primarily found in whole plant foods, such as beets and dark green leafy vegetables—which supply the raw material the body needs to produce NO. Research shows that people who consume greater amounts of these foods tend to have higher levels of NO—and lower blood pressure.
They also enjoy a certain amount of protection against cardiovascular disease. For example, some intriguing small studies have shown that drinking raw beet juice every day may be linked to significant reductions in blood pressure among people with mild hypertension. People who cannot easily make and consume fresh beet juice every day may wish to consider taking our convenient heart health supplements, available here.
The evidence is clear: consuming dietary nitrates through the diet is good for cardiovascular health. Thus both NO and NO3 are good for you.
Nitrites (NO2) have gained a bad rap because they are routinely used to cure deli meats. They are added to products such as bacon, for instance, to preserve the meat’s “healthy” red or pink color. Left untreated, bacon and other cured meats tend to oxidize and turn an unappetizing shade of gray.
Sodium nitrite is a salt of nitrite that has been used for this purpose for centuries. Although sodium nitrite is not inherently toxic, problems can arise when this chemical reacts with amino acids in the meat itself—especially during cooking. This reaction can form chemicals called nitrosamines.
Nitrosamines are carcinogenic, meaning they have been linked to the promotion of cancer. Research has repeatedly shown that people who eat more processed, cured, and deli-type meats are at greater risk for cancer. Although it is not entirely clear how much of this additional risk may be attributed to nitrite preservatives in processed meats, it is certain that nitrosamines are occasionally formed during cooking. And they are not healthful. Nitrosamines occur in tobacco smoke, for example, and are considered a chief carcinogen associated with exposure to smoke.
Nitrogen-containing compounds are necessary for survival. Dietary nitrates, primarily from plant foods, are linked to better cardiovascular health, because they provide the body with the material it needs to produce a steady supply of nitric oxide (NO). NO signals blood vessels to relax, lowering blood pressure. To check your own levels of NO, consider trying our handy, patented nitric oxide saliva test strips, available here.