Nitrates, Nitrites, and Nitrosamines- OH MY!

Back once again my fellow Bacon Enthusiasts, this week’s blog post is brought to you by the letters “N” and “O” and by the number “3” (that’s right a Sesame Street reference this week made geekier by making it into a chemical compound).   In this post we are going to go after a question that I know is near and dear to all our hearts: Nitrates, Nitrites, and Nitrosamines.  Why are these three things close to all our hearts?  Well two of these substances, Nitrates and Nitrites, are in fact the substances in cured meats (Bacon) that we are told to stay away from and that they cause... DUN DUN DUH.... Cancer, but hey what doesn't cause Cancer these days, oh that's right, Nitrates and Nitrites.  Or I should say that there is no good evidence to support the theory that Nitrates and Nitrites are correlated let alone causative of any type of cancer.
The study that was used to start this scare was done in the 1970's, where it was said to be found that 13 rats had developed lymphatic cancer due to Nitrates.  This was the only part of the story that came out in the media. Shocker I know the media trying to scare people.  Here's the other side of the story that most people never hear, the preliminary research out of MIT behind the original Nitrate scare was never peer reviewed before the FDA and USDA decided that they should slap a warning label on everything that contained Nitrates and started putting regulations on the amounts of them used for curing meats.  Later this study was discredited as having "Fatal Flaws" in the data by the interagency working group of scientists from the FDA, USDA, and NIH.¹  Here is the risk assessment from the National Research Council.  They deemed that normal FDA procedures hadn’t been followed in inciting this scare of Nitrates.  So basically the science used in this study is a lot like the science used in the China Study (you know if you feed mice dairy and grains and they get cancer, it means meat causes cancer.) I know by now with all these posts saying that what the government is telling us is wrong that I sound like a conspiracy nut job, and honestly I'm OK with that.  Being normal is boring.  So let’s get into why I personally don’t believe that Nitrates and Nitrites are problematic.

If someone tells you that they are completely eliminating Nitrates from their diet, you have my permission to first call them a liar then kick them in the shin.  It’s absolutely impossible to completely eliminate nitrates from your diet unless you stop eating all vegetables, fruits, or animals that eat things that grow in soil.  Why? Because Nitrogen in essential in the growth of all plants, and nitrogen as you may have guessed is a component of Nitrates (NO3).  That’s right folks you get WAY more nitrates from vegetables, especially the green leafy ones, than you do from eating cured meats.  This is even more so since all the regulations put on the amounts of the sodium nitrates that can be used to cure meats.  Let’s take a look at some actual numbers (expressed as Parts Per Million-ppm) These are the average levels for some basic plant foods- Arugula: 4,677ppm; Basil 2,292ppm; Butterhead Lettuce 2,036ppm; Beets 1,279ppm; celery 1,103ppm; spinach 1,066ppm, pumpkin 874ppm.1  Now compare those numbers to your average hot dog with their average levels being 10ppm.  What I am trying to show you here is that cured meats a VERY small portion of our ingested Nitrate, in fact the vast majority, which is estimated by some to be anywhere from 70-95%,  of our Nitrate intake is from plants.  The funny thing is no one ever makes then claim that we should stop eating veggies or fruits because their nitrate levels cause cancer.  And what’s even funnier is that no one ever makes the claim that we shouldn’t swallow our own saliva even though 97%1 of our Nitrite exposure comes from swallowing our own spit.  So like I said if someone tells you that they are completely eliminated Nitrates and Nitrites from their diet ask them how they will survive without ever swallowing again.

Now let’s look at the other side of this topic, Nitrates are good for you.  According to a study done by Lundberg JO, Feelisch M, Björne H, Jansson EA, Weitzberg E., Inorganic Nitrates in plants is converted into Nitrite and Nitric Oxide which has vasodilating and tissue-protective properties through symbiotic bacteria in our mouths.  We have for as long as one can think back always been told to eat our vegetables by our mothers and grandmother (or as my grandmother put it, “Eat it or wear it”, and she wasn’t kidding), but who would of thought that the same heart saving substances in veggies were the same ones that we are told to stay away from in meats. 

The final “N” of our blog is Nitrosamines.  These little buggers can be pretty nasty and have shown to have a link to cancer, and are formed by combining Nitrates and Nitrites with Amines from proteins. “But Kevin you just said Nitrates and Nitrites don’t cause cancer, have you been dropping weights on your thick polish skull again?”  Yes I have been, but that has nothing to do with this.  Nitrates and Nitrites are perfectly safe as long as they don’t form Nitrosamines, and our bodies have evolved to prevent this from happening.  In the presence of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), it is damn near impossible for Nitrosamines to form.  Our stomach acid just so happens to contain, you guessed it, ascorbic acid in large enough amounts to prevent to union of Nitrates, Nitrites, and Amines.  The only time that our stomach is in the mood for some hot-nasty Nitrate/Amine lovin’, is if you happen to be in a state of hypochloridia (low stomach acid).  And I hate to pick on Vegans and Vegetarians (what no I don’t I love it), but not eating meat will actually cause your stomach acid level to plummet.  If you think you have low stomach acid or you are a recover vegetarian/vegan, just throw down some digestive support and you should be good to go.

There’s one last thing to discuss here when talking about Nitrates, Nitrites, and Nitrosamines, how to cook your food.  In a study presented by the University of Minnesota, the biggest cause of Nitrosamine formation in bacon was not the level of Nitrates consumed but how well the food was cooked.  They showed that when bacon was cooked up to medium well that no conclusive evidence of nitrosopyrrolidine (an N-nitroso Compound- NOCs) could be found.  However when burned to a crisp, which if you eat bacon this way I feel sorry for you, NOCs were found at levels of about 19ppm, which in my opinion is still not enough to really worry about.  The take away from this study for me is done burn the shit out of your food.  I have always suggested cooking all your foods are low temperatures, i.e. crock pots are your best friends.  Even though I don’t think the amounts of NCOs produced by burning bacon are a problem, it’s still probably a good idea for safety’s sake the next time you throw some bacon in the pan cook it on a lower heat and leave it a little fatty.  I promise it’s delicious this way, because as we all know there’s no real way to ruin bacon.

Lastly here a little fun fact for you in order to ingest a lethal dose of sodium nitrate you would have to eat somewhere between 2,222 to 4,444 hot dogs in a single sitting.  Give that a try and let me know how it goes.

As always don’t take my word for it, here are some links below that I found useful- check’em out.  And if you have any article, study, evidence that I’m completely wrong I would love to read it, so send it my way:


Phil said...

So happy you made a blog post on this since tommy and I always talk about it. Although uncured Bacon tastes way better, its not as convenient to buy in bulk like the Costco Bacon I purchase.

Tommy said...

It’s hard for me to argue with any part of this column because I'll usually believe anyone who tells me that I can eat as much bacon as I want. I do have a few questions though: It appears there’s a lot written on Nitrates but I'm still not sure how they are different from Nitrites? Also, I've read that so-called "uncured bacon" is actually just cured with celery juice which has its own naturally occurring nitrates (natural must mean better and worth spending more money on right?). Isn't this just a difference in syntax? Is there any difference in the end result? If I was a bacon maker I would (A) try to just get paid in bacon and (B) probably prefer a process where I can have direct control over the amount nitrates being used (e.g. sodium nitrates) as opposed to getting it second hand through the middle man known as celery juice. I know absolutely nothing about the steps required to get from Miss Piggy to bacon strips in my grocery store so I'm just speculating. Please enlighten us Kevin.

Gnostic Paladin said...


The difference between nitrates and nitrites is chemical; "nitrate" refers to one atom of nitrogen combined with three atoms of oxygen, while "nitrite" refers to one atom of nitrogen combined with two atoms of oxygen.

And there is actually a significant difference between naturally-occurring nitrates/nitrites and artificially-produced ones: namely, that the naturally-occuring ones are actually found in plants with all of the co-factors that your body needs properly to digest them (and possibly, to inhibit them from forming nitrosamines on the stove; I'm still researching).

A more familiar example may be seen in vitamin A, which we are warned is 'toxic' in high doses. Yet hunter-gatherers will eat organ meats with many times the vitamin A content considered toxic, with no ill effect. That is because first, the vitamin A that was studies was artificially produced (and therefore a pre-vitamin, not a true vitamin at all), and secondly, because foods naturally high in vitamin A are also naturally high in all of the co-factors that your body needs to PROCESS vitamin A.