N is for Nitrates/Nitrites

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Nutrition Tip Thursday

Randi Karlinsky MS, RDN, LDN, CHC

Nitrates and Nitrites are compounds found naturally in food but can also be added to foods. There is a lot of confusion regarding whether they are actually beneficial or harmful to our health. Hopefully this post will help clear it up!

The difference between nitrates and nitrites is a single oxygen atom. Nitrates have three while nitrites only have two. The nitrates are typically converted into nitrites, which then can take two different routes to produce either Nitric Oxide OR nitrosamines.

Nitric Oxide: Good!
The largest source of nitrates in our food supply is actually found in vegetables. Upon entering the body, nitrates/nitrites are converted into Nitric Oxide, which functions as a signaling molecule. The signal sent directs the muscles to relax, which dilates blood vessels resulting in the lowering of blood pressure.

Nitrosamines: Bad
A common function of nitrates/nitrites is as a preservative in processed meats (i.e. bacon, sausage, hot dogs, etc.) to prevent harmful bacteria from growing. When these foods are cooked, the compounds interact with the high heat forming nitrosamines. These are known carcinogens that can potentially lead to chronic conditions such as cancer.

In summary, make sure to consume a diet rich is vegetables (healthy nitrates/nitrites) and limited in processed meats in order to live a long, healthy life!