Have you heard the bad buzz about dangerous dietary nitrates? The topic is important and trendy as people become more aware of how some chemicals work against us from the inside out. Even those of us who want the best for our families can make poor choices because it’s hard to stay up-to-date on new information about nutrition.
Nitrates come from nitrogen which is pretty much everywhere in the world. Did you know that this abundant element makes up about 80 percent of the air we breathe? It’s also a major component of cellular proteins in every living organism – plants and animals alike.
The good news is that scientists today tell us that organic nitrogen is completely harmless. In fact, all life on our lovely planet recycles nitrogen constantly. Everything that breathes or photosynthesizes contains natural nitrates and nitrites.
However, inorganic nitrates are a different story. Nitrates are actually salts (called esters) which are released from nitric acid when we consume certain foods or drinks.
Ingesting too many synthetic (human-made) nitrates poses serious health hazards for Earth’s living organisms, great and small. Cancers, retarded intrauterine growth, and sudden infant death syndrome have all been linked to consuming too many nitrates.
Scientific research has shown that “nitrates themselves are relatively inert, until they are turned into nitrites by bacteria in the mouth or enzymes in the body.”
The real danger to our health comes from nitrosamines which have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals and are currently being studied to see if they lead to human carcinomas, too:
“Nitrate is reduced to nitrite by the enzyme nitrate reductase, which occurs in a number of bacteria…nitrite is converted to nitrosating agents which subsequently react with amines in the meat during processing, storage, and cooking to form nitrosamines.”
The takeaway from the super-sciency explanation cited above is cooking. Processed food producers use nitrates and nitrites to cure, preserve, and color such foods as bacon, salami, and sausages.
Nitrosamines are toxic chemicals found in tobacco products, tobacco smoke, fish, beer, fried foods, and cured meats.
Inside all animal bodies – including us humans – nitrites interfere with hemoglobin (red blood cells) by producing methemoglobin. This chemical destroys the ability of red blood cells to transport oxygen to every part of the body.
Too much methemoglobin in babies younger than three months old can cause a serious medical condition called methemoglobinemia (meth-em-oh-glo-bi-NEE-mee-ya) or blue baby syndrome. Parents need to be careful not to feed their babies water with nitrate levels higher than 1mg/l (one milligram per liter, about a quart of liquid).
Protect your family from overexposure to toxic nitrates and nitrites by making informed choices about the foods you buy and consume.
Nitrogen is often the major ingredient in commercial chemical fertilizers. In the right amounts, it helps plants grow. But if you have ever accidentally spilled too much of it on your lawn, you know that an excess of this common chemical will turn the green grass yellow and kill it, leaving an ugly dead patch. Too much good nitrogen is bad for all living organisms. As with so many other things, moderation is key.
Unfortunately, municipal and industrial wastewater, septic tanks, feedlot discharges, animal wastes, and car exhausts produce lots of nitrogen which winds up in rivers, lakes, groundwater, and tap water.
When inorganic fertilizers seep into our water sources a nitrate reaction occurs which reduces the available oxygen to every kind of life there. Nitrate levels over the safe level will kill fish, aquatic animals, and plants – indiscriminately.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determines the maximum legal levels of nitrates and nitrites in drinking water. Check out this Water Quality Association Fact Sheet and note that the EPA calls nitrates and nitrites “contaminants” – which means substances that are impure or undesirable.
The highest legal limit for nitrates in tapwater established by the EPA is 10 parts per million (ppm). But some recent scientific research suggests that lower nitrate levels can raise the number of reported cases of colorectal cancer, thyroid cancers, and birth defects.
The EPA has published estimated nitrate concentration in the groundwater of each of the United States.
You might want to install a water purification system in your home and business to lower your nitrate/nitrite consumption.
A groundbreaking new study from the Environmental Working Group and Duke University analyzed and assessed nitrate exposure from drinking water among Americans, linking 2,300 to 12,594 cancer cases nationwide to nitrates present in tap water. Of those cancer cases, 54-82% were colorectal cancer (CRC).
Help your family stay in the nitrosamines safety zone by choosing foods that are low in nitrates:
- Apple sauce
- Broad bean
- Fruit mix
- Green bean
- Meat labeled uncured or nitrate-free
- Sweet potato
- Summer squash
Avoid adding bacon or bologna to sandwiches, salads or dishes you cook to limit your family’s intake of nitrates and nitrites. Also, rest assured that reheating veggies adds very few harmful nitrosamines to your meals.