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What Are Nitrates and Nitrites? And Why They're In Your Food

Here's what to know about these common chemical compounds.

Monitoring our diets is essential for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. So, it only makes sense that we want to make sure the foods we consume are filled with nourishing ingredients, vitamins, and minerals. Did you know that processed and cured meats are well-known for being packed with nitrates and/or nitrites and other ingredients that lead to cancer? Let's dive into the facts about nitrates and nitrites and why these chemical components may be wrecking your health.

What are nitrates and nitrites?

bacon cooking in a skillet

You may be somewhat familiar with nitrates and nitrites, but do you know what they are exactly? These two chemical units contain nitrogen and oxygen atoms and exist attached to sodium (sodium nitrate) and potassium (potassium nitrate). Nitrates are stable molecules; however, bacteria or enzymes in the body can convert these nitrates into nitrites which may be harmful, depending on their source. This conversion creates either beneficial nitric oxide from some vegetables or harmful nitrosamines from things like cured meats.

Manufacturers add nitrates to cured and processed meats as a preservative to give them their rosy appearance, distinct salty flavor, and mouth-watering aroma (think bacon). Nitrates also preserve these meats because they contain antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. These properties help stave off bacteria and prevent the growth of botulism—a deadly foodborne illness.

Where are nitrates and nitrites found?

Nitrates and nitrites are found in some processed and cured foods and some vegetables. They are also found and used in pharmaceutical drugs, the production of explosives, food conservation, and farm and yard fertilizers.

Which foods contain nitrates and nitrites?

A plethora of processed and cured meats contain sodium nitrate, such as:

  • Hot dogs
  • Ham
  • Sausages
  • Jerky
  • Bacon
  • Deli meats and cold cuts

The nitrates found in these foods have been linked to cancer, as well as reproductive and thyroid issues.

But don't nix nitrates from your diet just yet

Nitrates found in some healthy foods convert to beneficial nitric acid when consumed. Nitric acid is beneficial because it helps relax and dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure. It also provides immune support and improves performance during exercise. They may also help reduce the risk of some types of cancers.

These beneficial nitrates are found in foods such as:

Nitrates are also naturally found in water, which is why health officials monitor nitrate levels in drinking water. They can also be found naturally in the body, soil, and the air we breathe.

Are nitrates and nitrites harmful?

Nitrates and nitrites can be both harmful and beneficial, depending on their source and how they're converted in the body. As you may have guessed, nitrates originating from fresh vegetables, such as spinach, are highly beneficial, while nitrates from cured meats are not.

Find out about One Major Side Effect of Eating Processed Meat, According to a New Study.


Some evidence shows that high levels of nitrates and nitrites are linked to cancer, tumors, and leukemia in children and adults. Vegetables containing nitrites ward off cancer, so we know that consuming nitrites from these natural sources does not cause harm. So, the form in which the nitrates and nitrites are consumed and how they are converted determines the risk of health issues.

Heart Disease

Sodium nitrate may affect the body's response to sugar handling, leading to diabetes. It may also damage blood vessels, causing narrowing and hardening of the arterial walls, leading to heart disease. Limiting processed meats and consuming smaller serving sizes encourages a heart-healthy diet.

Thyroid Issues

Public water supplies containing high levels of nitrates can increase the risk of thyroid cancer and hypothyroidism. Additional studies are still needed to confirm whether nitrates and thyroid conditions are linked.

Shaye Glisson
Shaye was born and raised in Houston, TX. She is a freelance Lifestyle/Beauty/Wellness writer and a licensed Cosmetologist with several years of writing experience. Read more about Shaye