If you’re the type of person that tries to stay abreast of information pertaining to nutrition and health, you’ve probably heard of nitrates.
However, the majority of people aren’t sure where nitrates fall on the healthy-unhealthy scale.
It seems like sometimes nitrates in foods are said to be carcinogenic or otherwise bad for your health, while other times, it seems like health experts are encouraging people to eat foods high in nitrates.
So, where does the truth lie? Are nitrates healthy? Should you eat foods high in nitrates?
In this article, we will discuss nitrates in food, nitrates vs. nitrites, and foods high in nitrates.
We will cover:
- What Are Nitrates? Nitrates vs. Nitrites
- Benefits of Nitrates
- 25 Foods High In Nitrates
- Foods High In Synthetic Nitrates and Nitrites
Let’s get started!
What Are Nitrates? Nitrates vs. Nitrites
Many people conflate nitrate and nitrites because they not only sound similar, but they are similar in many ways.
Nitrates and nitrites are both nitrogenous (nitrogen-containing) compounds, but they differ in structure.
Nitrates (NO3) contain one nitrogen atom bonded to three oxygen atoms, while nitrites (NO2) contain one nitrogen atom bonded to two oxygen atoms.
The third oxygen atom in nitrates makes the molecule very stable, or chemically inert, because the nitrogen atom has all of the electrons in its outermost shell occupied in a bond with one of the oxygen atoms.
This means the nitrates are harmless in your body because they are unreactive.
However, when you eat foods high in nitrates, bacteria in the mouth and gut can convert these molecules into nitrites, which are inherently unstable.
Research suggests that nitrites, in turn, can be converted into either nitric oxide, which is beneficial for the body, or nitrosamines, which can be harmful to the body.
Nitrites are added to processed meats such as hot dogs, bacon, sausage, and ham, because in meat, the nitrites get converted into nitric oxide.
It is the nitrites added to processed meats that are what preserves the meat and keeps it pink or red rather than leading to discoloration or allowing the meat to turn brown. Nitrites also impart a salty flavor and keep the meat from spoiling.
Nitrates found naturally in foods such as spinach and kale can be converted by the bacteria in the gut and mouth into nitric oxide, which plays a protective role on the lining of the digestive tract, prevents the growth of pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella, and can help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other metabolic conditions.
Studies show that dietary nitrates, obtained primarily from vegetables, can indeed improve cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack.
In contrast, the synthetic nitrates or nitrites (such as sodium or potassium nitrate or nitrite) consumed in processed meats like ham and hot dogs is usually broken down to harmful compounds called nitrosamines rather than to beneficial nitric oxide.
According to the Environmental Working Group, Nitrosamines have been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, which is why people sometimes hear that nitrates are carcinogenic.
It’s important to restate the distinction here that natural nitrates, such as those found in vegetables, seem to be healthy because they broken down to beneficial nitric oxide whereas synthetic nitrates and nitrites, such as those found in processed meats, are unhealthy because they broken down to carcinogenic nitrosamines.
But why this difference? Why are naturally-occurring nitrates and nitrites in foods such as vegetable and dairy broken down to helpful nitric oxide while synthetic nitrates and nitrites are converted to dangerous nitrosamines?
Most researchers think the difference occurs because foods high in nitrates that are naturally in the food tend to be also high in vitamin C and antioxidants. These compounds act to prevent the natural nitrates and nitrites from being broken down into nitrosamines.
Moreover, foods high in synthetic nitrates and nitrites tend to be acidic and high in protein.
These characteristics, coupled with heating or cooking the food (which is typical for most meats), all contribute to the risk that the synthetic nitrogenous compounds will be converted to nitrosamines rather than nitric oxide.
Essentially, foods with synthetic nitrates and nitrites have additional properties that trigger the conversion to dangerous nitrosamines, but foods high in natural nitrates have additional properties and nutrients that instead trigger the conversion to protective nitric oxide.
Benefits of Nitrates
Although too much nitric acid can be toxic to the body, the fact that natural nitrates can produce nitric oxide tends to be a good thing.
The body also naturally produces nitric oxide. This molecule has several beneficial roles in the body, but one of the most notable is that it acts as a vasodilator.
This means that nitric acid helps to open up your blood vessels, which promotes better circulation.
Dilation of the blood vessels can reduce your blood pressure because the blood doesn’t have to squeeze through such narrow passageways.
The pressure exerted by the blood on a more patent artery is reduced.
It is this dilatory effect of nitric oxide on the blood vessels that is primarily responsible for the cardiovascular-protective effects of eating foods high in nitrates.
Studies have shown that foods that are high in nitrates and nitrites, such as leafy green vegetables and beetroot, can reduce blood pressure in just a few hours by upwards of 4–10 mm/Hg.
Blood vessel dilation can also improve exercise performance because muscles are able to get more oxygen through improved perfusion of tiny capillaries.
Natural nitrates also seem to improve the function of the mitochondria, the cellular organelle that produce cellular energy (ATP) through aerobic metabolism.
The more efficient your mitochondria are at using oxygen to create ATP during exercise, the longer and easier your exercise performance may be.
For this reason, beetroot juice and beetroot extracts, which are high in natural nitrates, have been shown to confer exercise performance benefits.
For example, studies have found that ingesting beetroot before endurance exercise has been shown to reduce the oxygen cost of the workout, which means that at the same pace or workload, the subjects were working at a lower relative percentage of max VO2.
In other words, the exercise was easier on the body after the consumption of dietary nitrates.
In addition to seeing this play out in cycling, it also has been demonstrated in walking and running. Plus, time to exhaustion increased.
Additionally, nitric oxide can boost brain function because blood vessel dilation in the brain increases cerebral blood flow.
24 Foods High In Nitrates
It’s hard to measure the exact concentration of natural nitrates in foods because it really depends on the growing season, the soil quality, and fertilizers used.
Therefore, any two servings of spinach, for example, might contain different amounts of nitrates if they came from different farms.
With that said, there are certain foods that are always relatively high in natural nitrates. Some of the healthy foods highest in nitrates include the following:
- Dark, leafy green vegetables: Examples include spinach, kale, Swiss chard, arugula, beet greens, and mustard greens. For example, a 100-gram serving of fresh spinach can provide anywhere from 24 to 387 mg of nitrates. Again, this huge difference is based on the growing conditions.
- Beetroot and beetroot juice: As mentioned, diets high in natural nitrate rich foods have been shown to reduce blood pressure, and beetroot juice is one of the main dietary sources used in most studies, given the high concentration of nitrates. You’ll even find athletic performance supplements that contain beetroot powder or beetroot juice.
- Lettuce: Lettuce is often seen as the less nutrient-packed cousin of spinach, but it’s still a rich source of dietary nitrates. A 100-gram serving provides 13-267 mg of nitrates.
- Chinese cabbage
- Bok choy: Bok choy, a member of the cabbage family, can contain anywhere from 103- 309 mg of nitrates in a 100-gram serving.
- Carrots: This popular veggie provides anywhere from 92-195 mg of nitrates per 100-gram serving.
- Chicory leaf
Although vegetables contain the highest amounts of natural nitrates, there are also fruits that have nitrates.
Examples of nitrate-rich fruits include watermelon, kiwi fruit, apples, pomegranate, bananas, pears, oranges, strawberries, peaches, pears, and grapes.
Foods High In Synthetic Nitrates and Nitrites
Remember, consuming foods high in synthetic nitrates or nitrites can be harmful to your body, as these compounds are broken down into carcinogenic nitrosamines.
Synthetic nitrates and nitrites will appear on the food label in the ingredients list, whereas foods high in nitrates that are naturally occurring in the food will not appear on the label.
Natural nitrates aren’t “ingredients;” they are simply compounds inherent within the food or ingredients like water or vitamin C.
Synthetic nitrates and nitrites might show up as sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, potassium nitrate, or potassium nitrite.
Examples of foods high in synthetic nitrates are ham, bacon, hot dogs, sausages, deli meats, and even certain drinking water.
Cured ham is one of the worst offenders, with as much as 890 mcg per 100-gram serving. The synthetic nitrates are what impart the iconic pink color.
Bacon is also super high in both synthetic nitrates and nitrites. A standard bacon product has about 380 mcg of nitrates per 100 grams. This concentration is nearly doubled in the “nitrite-free” bacon varieties.
Cured deli meats can have about 500 mcg per 100-gram portion and uncured deli meats usually land around 300 mcg for the same serving.
Remember, filling your plate with naturally nitrate-rich foods can boost your health and may even improve your athletic performance. Just be sure to leave the processed meats on the shelf.
Looking to spiff up your diet? Check out our 3 Best Popular Diets For Runners.