What are Nitrates?
Nitrates are chemical compounds (NO3) that contain both nitrogen and oxygen atoms. They can be either natural or synthetic (man-made). The natural ones are formed as part of the natural nitrogen cycle in plants and it is what plants need to grow. Nitrates that appear naturally in food have been found to be good for the human body.
But nitrates that are man-made and used in meats, some dairy products (such as some cheese and dry, powdered milk), smoked fish, beer, and other things we consume, have been linked to chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes, as well as to certain cancers, according to the World Health Organization and Harvard University School of Public Health.
And in fact, the World Health Organization classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, the same category that smoking tobacco and asbestos falls into, though smoking makes the risk of lung cancer higher and a diet high in processed meat intake increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
Nitrates found naturally in foods convert into nitric oxide, which helps our cardiovascular systems operate well. Nitrates that are created synthetically or paired with animal products end up as nitrosamines, which are things that cause cancer.
But to be clear, nitrates are not only found in our foods and beverages. The FDA has found nitrates and nitrosamines in some medications and drugs, and nitrates have been found in our water supplies due to smog and acid rain, explosives, fertilizers, and animal waste runoff. (And conventional water treatment processes do not remove nitrates from water supplies, according to Food Revolution.)
Boosting Your Health
So what does this information mean to you and for you? We, at Whole Champion Foundation, promote personal responsibility in the choices that we make every day, and this includes drinking enough water each day and for that water to be as clean as possible. Some home water treatment systems remove nitrates from your water. But check out this EPA chart to see how contaminated your water system is.
And we advocate limiting the amounts of foods with added nitrates that we consume and increasing the number of foods with healthy nitrate sources. It is better for our bodies and for the planet. Let’s review which foods we are talking about.
Foods with Added Nitrates
Processed meats tend to be filled with added nitrates as a way to preserve the meat and improve the color of the food. WebMd.com says that “Many studies recommend that vitamin C be added to meats high in nitrates to prevent the formation of harmful nitrite compounds.” The four foods with the highest amounts of added, unhealthy nitrates are:
- Deli meat
- Hot dogs
Additional foods with added nitrates include: sausages; jerkies; smoked fish and poultry; some beef, pork, lamb, and other meats; and any other cured or smoked animal products.
Healthy Sources of Nitrates
When natural nitrates are found with other antioxidants and vitamins, they can be converted into healthy nitric oxide. Four foods that contain high amounts of healthy nitrates include:
- Bok choy
- Lettuce (especially leaf lettuces)
Other foods that contain beneficial nitrates plus are rich sources of antioxidants are basil and cilantro, beets, rhubarb, celery, green beans, broccoli, mushrooms, and strawberries.
Let’s face it. The old adage is true that you are what you eat. If we put garbage into us, we feel like garbage, too. And what we eat determines the energy levels we have, our stamina, the state of our mental health, how well we sleep, and how healthy our bodies feel and are. So choose to eat well as one more way to care for yourself.