Nitrates and nitrites are chemicals used in fertilizers, in rodenticides (to kill rodents), and as food preservatives (1-5). Nitrates and nitrites come in various forms, but when dried are typically a white or crystalline powder. Nitrate (NO3-) and nitrite (NO2-) are also naturally-occurring compounds that are a metabolic product of microbial digestion of wastes containing nitrogen, for example, animal feces or nitrogen-based fertilizers (2, 4). Sodium and potassium nitrates are used as fumigants in canisters, which are placed underground in rodent dens and holes, and then ignited to explode and release gases that kill the rodents (1, 3). Sodium nitrite is a food additive that is used as a preservative (4, 5).
Do Hot Dogs Cause Cancer?
There have been a lot of studies over the years. Some have found an association between cured meat consumption and certain types of cancers in adults, whereas others have found no link. But just this year, there was a study finding that kids who eat three or more hot dogs a week have a higher than normal rate of leukemia. Other studies found that eating hot dogs during pregnancy can increase the risk of brain tumors in the babies.
Understandably, there are now calls to ban the use of nitrites and nitrates in processed foods. But the truth is that unless you eat cold cuts at every single meal, cured meats are probably not the biggest source of nitrates and nitrites in your diet. You know what is? (You’re not going to believe this.) Vegetables account for most of the nitrates and nitrites in a typical diet.
That’s right: the more vegetables you eat, the higher your intake of nitrates and nitrites. Nevertheless, eating more vegetables reduces your risk of cancer. Obviously, it’s an over-simplification to say that these compounds cause cancer.
How Nitrites and Nitrates Become Harmful
Nitrates and nitrites are both naturally occurring substances found in food and water, and are produced by living cells. They’re involved in many important chemical reactions in the body. In fact, you could argue that nitrates and nitrites are essential to health.
However, they can also react with other compounds—either in a food or in your body—to form cancer-causing substances. These reactions are more likely to occur in the presence of protein. Meat is, of course, mostly protein.
But nitrites are much less likely to be converted into harmful chemicals in the presence of vitamin C and other antioxidants.
Nitrites are much less likely to be converted into harmful chemicals in the presence of vitamin C and other antioxidants.
In most of the studies that found a link between cured meats and cancer, the link was only observed in people who ate the most cured meat and the least vitamin C. People who ate a lot of cured meat but also got plenty of vitamin C had no increase in cancer rates.
Vegetables contain vitamin C. And that’s why eating a lot of vegetables doesn’t increase your risk of cancer, even though vegetables contain a lot of nitrates. In fact, eating vegetables lowers your cancer risk because of all the other cancer-fighting compounds they contain.
Are There Nitrates in Your Water?
For some people, the question is not what’s in your food but what’s in your water. Nitrates are used extensively as fertilizer in non-organic farming operations and the run-off often contaminates groundwater. If you live on or near a farm, you might want to have your water tested because that’s likely to be the most significant source of your nitrate exposure.
How to Minimize Your Cancer Risk
So, my advice about nitrites and nitrates is this: Don’t panic. Although there is cause for concern, you can minimize the health risks with these quick and dirty tips:
Be especially careful during pregnancy: Developing fetuses are by far the most vulnerable to the carcinogenic effects of nitrosamines. Avoid cured meats such as hot dogs, bacon, and ham during pregnancy. Also, if you live on or near a farm, be sure to have your water tested and/or drink bottled water during your pregnancy.
Buy nitrite-free hot dogs, especially if your kids eat a lot of hot dogs: They taste just like regular hot dogs.
Limit your consumption of cured meat: Don’t eat cured meats every day.
Cook your bacon slowly: Cook your bacon slowly over low heat and be very careful not to burn it. When you cook bacon quickly over high heat, it produces tons of nitrosamines. When you cook it gently, it produces much less. You can also find nitrite-free bacon.
Eat more vegetables: Eat your vegetables—especially when you are eating cured meats. The antioxidants in vegetables inhibit the conversion of nitrites into harmful compounds.
Nitrite/Nitrate free options: