When I got my article assignment for this month, I had no idea what a nitrate was or how to avoid one. Put that down to a lack of health knowledge or life experience — I don’t know. When I told my mom about the article, she was distinctly more informed than I was. “Easy. Don’t eat hot dogs,” she laughed. Oh no, I thought, Will I have to write an entire article telling the Internet not to eat hot dogs?
Fortunately, after a bit more research, it became evident that avoiding nitrates was not as simple as just not eating hot dogs — although hot dogs are certainly a contributing factor. Nitrates occur naturally in a number of fruits and vegetables, and they are added to processed meats — like hot dogs, bacon, and lunch meat — to add color and inhibit bacterial growth. They don’t seem to be inherently carcinogenic although they can cause methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome, in too-large quantities. Methemoglobinemia “is an illness that arises when an infant’s blood is unable to carry enough oxygen to body cells and tissues,” caused by the reaction between nitrates and hemoglobin, which can sometimes cause excessive levels of methemoglobin. While this can be a serious issue in infants, it’s rarely fatal in adults.
However, once a nitrate has been converted to a nitrite, the nitrite is chemically unstable and will be become either nitric oxide or a nitrosamine. Nitrosamines, which only form in the presence of amino acids and high heat — the same conditions used to prepare bacon and hot dogs — have been linked to pancreatic and possibly colon cancer in adults. They’re also commonly found in tobacco smoke and can occasionally form in the presence of stomach acid.
Sounds unpleasant, doesn’t it? Without further ado, here are some ways to ensure that these chemicals don’t enter your body:
1. Since nitrates are added to processed meat products, cut down on hot dogs, lunch meat, and bacon.
Ham and cold cuts also often contain nitrates. If it’s a meat product, and if it’s at risk of going bad or turning brown in color, you might want to check to see if there are added nitrates. There are numerous adverse health effects to bacon anyway, and plenty of alternatives to all of these foods.
2. If you’re still bent on eating these foods (after all, it is summer; what’s a hot dog once in a while?), try buying them from Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or a local farmer’s market.
Uncured hot dogs, like those sold by Applegate Farms, are nitrate-free and nearly always healthier than regular hot dogs. Also, this article gives a few examples of the healthiest and unhealthiest hot dogs.
3. Do your research and read ingredient lists to determine whether there are nitrates in your food. Look out for other red flags, too.
If the ingredients “sodium nitrate” or “potassium nitrate” appear in an ingredient list, the food you’re considering might not be a great choice. Also, if these additives appear, there may be other chemicals, like high fructose corn syrup and added sugars. If high fructose corn syrup (sometimes also called “partially hydrogenated corn oil”), added sugar, or nitrates appear high up on the ingredient list, put the food down. There are healthier options, and you deserve better.
4. Keep up to date on what’s in your water.
Since public drinking water districts must disclose their water content, you can seek out these results to see if your nitrate content is safe. If it falls within dangerous levels, there are filters and distillers that can be used in your home.
5. Eat a balanced diet with plenty of vitamins and antioxidants.
Even though many fruits and vegetables contain naturally-occurring nitrates, they also come with plenty of vitamins and antioxidants, which are beneficial to your health for a number of reasons: one being that they prevent nitrates from becoming nitrosamines.
Don’t worry too much. Several studies indicate that previous research done on the link between nitrates and cancer might not be completely decisive. And, if you eat organic, vegan, or vegetarian, you’re probably safe already.