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Nitrites vs Nitrates: What’s the Difference?

Nitrites and Nitrates.  You might use these two words interchangeable, or may not have even realized they were two different words, but nitrates and nitrites are not the same thing!  In fact, one is something you want and the other is likely something you want to avoid.  Let’s break down the difference between nitrates and nitrites in simple terms and why we want to eat one but avoid the other.

Nitrates are naturally occurring compounds found in various foods like vegetables, fruits, and drinking water. The best sources of them are leafy greens, and root vegetables- things like beets and carrots.  When we eat these veggies, our bodies can turn nitrates into something called nitric oxide, which is like wonderful for our blood vessels. Nitric oxide helps keep our blood vessels relaxed and our blood flowing smoothly. So, nitrates are wonderful for blood pressure regulation.  They also act as an antioxidant in our body, helping reduce oxidative stress, and there are some studies that show they can help prevent certain types of cancer.  So nitrates are definitely high up there on the “good foods to eat” list!

Now, nitrites are a bit different. Nitrites are often used as preservatives in processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and sausages. While they help keep these meats safe to eat and give them that fun pink color, that might be all that’s fun about them!  You see, when we cook processed meats at high temperatures (like frying bacon), nitrites can team up with other stuff and create something called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are problematic as they’re linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, particularly colorectal cancer, so something we definitely want to avoid.

So for ideal health, we want a diet rich in nitrates and low in nitrites.  How do we get that?  Follow these simple steps:

  1. Eat Plenty of Nitrate-Rich Vegetables:
  • Leafy greens: Spinach, arugula, kale, and Swiss chard are excellent sources of nitrates.
  • Root vegetables: Beets, carrots, and radishes also contain nitrates.
  • Celery and celeriac: These vegetables are naturally high in nitrates.
  1. Enjoy Nitrate-Rich Fruits:
  • Rhubarb and pomegranates are your best fruit sources.
  1. Choose Nitrate-Free or Low-Nitrite Processed Meats:
  • If you enjoy processed meats like bacon, ham, or sausages, look for nitrate-free or low-nitrite versions. These products typically use natural sources of nitrates (e.g., celery juice) for preservation instead of sodium or potassium nitrite additives.
  1. Be Mindful of Restaurant Choices:
  • When dining out, inquire about the preparation methods used for cured or processed meats in dishes. Opt for nitrite-free options if available.
  1. Cook at Home:
  • Cooking at home allows you to have more control over the ingredients you use. You can choose nitrate-rich vegetables and prepare dishes without adding nitrites.

Remember, while dietary nitrates from natural sources are generally considered beneficial for health, nitrites from processed and cured meats come with concerns related to potential nitrosamine formation and cancer risk. For those concerned about nitrites, choosing nitrate-free or lower-nitrite processed meat options and focusing on a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help strike a healthier dietary balance.

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Dr. Candice Seti


California-licensed Clinical Psychologist, Certified Nutrition Coach, and Certified Personal Trainer

Dr. Candice Seti

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