Everything You Need to Know About Nitrates

Nitrates and nitrites are found in chemicals like sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate. These are used as preservatives, preventing harmful bacterial growth in certain foods like bacon and other cured meats.

Nitrates occur naturally in plants and can have cardiovascular (heart) health benefits. Dietary nitrate is absorbed in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and much of it is excreted in the urine. The salivary glands play a significant role in reabsorbing the nitrate from the body and concentrating it. Bacteria in the back of the mouth converts nitrate to nitrite, which is absorbed in the stomach and small intestine and is distributed to the rest of the body.

This article will talk about what foods have nitrates in them, whether it is naturally occurring or an additive, and how this can affect your overall health.

Cut of steak and variety of green vegetables and herbs composition on gray table viewed from above. Food background

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Where Are Nitrates Found?

Nitrates are found naturally in some vegetables. They are also added to processed foods to enhance flavor and preserve color.

Naturally in Vegetables

There are some plants that naturally contain high concentrations of nitrates, including:

  • Leafy vegetables such as rucola, lettuce, spinach, and chard
  • Beets and beetroot
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Radishes
  • Rhubarb

Leafy vegetables have the highest levels of nitrates. Nitrate and nitrite levels are lower, on average, in pickled vegetables compared to fresh ones.

Processed Foods

There are high levels of nitrates added to many processed meats. These additives serve multiple purposes, including preservation, giving them salty flavor, and, in some cases, preserving the color (such as with red meat). These meats include:

  • Bacon
  • Jerky (beef, turkey, other meats)
  • Canned poultry products
  • Ham
  • Hot dogs
  • Pork loins
  • Sausage

Water

Nitrates can be found in drinking water. You cannot see, smell, or taste nitrates, so water levels must be tested via one of two methods: the cadmium reduction method and the nitrate electrode. These are generally performed by your local Department of Health, but those with private water sources (e.g., a well) need to have their water tested by a professional.

Nitrates enter the water system because of runoff from fertilization, wastewater, and landfills. It should not be in your water system; however, if you have well water with a disintegrating or poorly-built well, it can leak into your drinking water.

Bottled water may have nitrates. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that the maximum allowable concentration for total nitrate and nitrite (as nitrogen) is 10 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). If the bottle exceeds this amount, the label must state "Contains Excessive Nitrate."

Benefits of Nitrates

Nitrates found naturally in vegetables may help through the effects of nitric oxide, a type of vasodilator (meaning it helps blood vessels relax and open). Nitric oxide plays a role in cardiovascular health by improving blood pressure, heart function, and exercise performance.

A 2021 diet study followed people who reported their dietary intake over time. Eating 1 cup of nitrate-rich vegetables per day was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in that population. The study also showed that people who consume moderate to high amounts of nitrate-rich vegetables showed these specific benefits:

It is unclear if eating naturally-occurring nitrates help offset symptoms of cognitive decline—a hallmark symptom of Alzheimer's disease—although research is ongoing. Factors include age and health of the patient and how far along they are in disease progression. Further study is needed to evaluate the benefit of eating healthy nitrates for cognitive benefits.

Dietary nitrate supplementation can improve endurance and sprint-type exercises in athletes. It can also benefit weight lifters by supporting skeletal health, building muscle, and increasing overall performance.

Risks of Consuming Nitrates

Ingesting dietary nitrates added to foods for preservation, flavor, and color may also lead to certain conditions and health issues, although these risks can be mitigated by eating organic nitrates found in vegetables. However, pinpointing the exact cause (e.g., environmental, lifestyle factors, genetics) of these conditions can be challenging.

Conditions associated with high levels of nitrate consumption include:

  • High blood pressure: Eating a diet high in processed foods can affect your blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease.
  • Colorectal cancer: Eating meats (with nitrate additives) that are cooked at very high temperatures increase the risk of colorectal cancer. The correlation between eating a high meat diet to colorectal cancer is well known.
  • Gastric cancer: High or moderate nitrate intake of dietary nitrates is associated with a higher risk of gastric cancer (stomach cancer) Studies are ongoing to further understand the connection.
  • Methemoglobinemia: Also known as blue baby syndrome, this condition occurs in babies under 6-months old due to the over-consumption and absorption of nitrates.

Minimizing Risks

There are ways to reduce the risk of the health conditions of food additives containing nitrates:

  • Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit processed foods such as beef jerky and hot dogs.
  • Researchers observed a decrease in blood pressure in older adults drinking beet juice.
  • Dietary nitrate supplements are being studied to see if they have the potential to improve conditions like stroke, heart attack, and hypertension (high blood pressure), and alleviate gastric ulcers. Always check with your healthcare provider before starting a new supplement.

Summary

Depending on the source, nitrates can help or hinder your health. One way to support overall health is to eat lots of whole foods, fresh fruits, and vegetables, which can benefit your cardiovascular health and blood flow to the brain and the rest of your body. Eating a healthy diet can minimize chronic illness and the onset of certain diseases like colorectal and gastric cancer.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding the health benefits or risks of nitrates in your food and water can be confusing. Be sure to reach out to your healthcare provider if you have questions about the source of nitrates in your daily diet to see if you might need an adjustment.

If you have well water, it would be a good idea to have the water tested to make sure you are not drinking more than what the FDA considers a safe amount.  

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which foods have added nitrates?

    Processed foods including bacon, beef jerky, ham, and canned meats all have added nitrates.

  • Which foods are rich in natural nitrates?

    Foods that naturally have nitrates include beets, carrots, celery, and raw spinach. These are good for you and have health benefits like blood pressure support and athletic performance.

  • Does bottled water have nitrates?

    Yes, bottled water may have nitrates, but in low amounts. The FDA states that the allowable concentration for nitrate-nitrogen in bottled water is 10, or 45 milligrams per liter (mg/L) total nitrates. If the bottle exceeds this amount, the label must state "Contains Excessive Nitrate."


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