Nitrates + Nitrites: Friend or Foe?
Last week was a crazy-busy one, and there were several days when I left the house at 8:30am and didn’t get home until late afternoon. We always warn our clients against getting caught in “snackmergency” situations- one of the most common “dietary pitfalls”, so I made sure to practice what I preach and plan ahead. I needed something quick to prepare, easy to eat on-the-go (read: in the camp pick up line), and full of healthy fat and protein to keep me satiated and prevent an afternoon energy crash. The result: deconstructed “cobb salad wraps” that totally hit the spot!
I baked a few slices of Applegate Farms turkey bacon, hardboiled an egg, sliced up some avocado and cherry tomatoes, and wrapped everything together in three leaves of butter lettuce. What’s easier (and tastier?) than that?!!
However, while we do love turkey bacon on occasion, we highly advise consuming any type of processed meat in moderation (a small amount no more than once or twice a week) and being careful about the brands and quality that you choose. Since summer is the season for sandwiches at the pool, beach barbeques and backyard grilling, we know this is an important and timely topic to discuss.
Ok, so why should we be concerned? In a nutshell, because processed meats (bacon, jerky, deli meats, hot dogs and sausage) are high in nitrates and nitrites. Manufacturers add them to meat to extend shelf life, add a salty flavor and enhance the pink/red color. Without these additives, the meat would turn brown and grow bacteria (ie/botulism) more quickly. This preservation process began in the 1960’s and frequently replaced the standard methods of smoking, salting and pickling.
Nitrates/nitrites are inorganic water-soluble compounds that form when nitrogen and oxygen combine. Nitrates contain one nitrogen and three oxygens, while nitrites contain one nitrogen and two oxygens. Both of these chemicals are naturally occurring in soil, which means fruits and veggies often contain high levels- in fact, 42-80% of the nitrates/nitrites we consume come from plants. Vegetables with the highest concentration include celery, beets, leafy green, cabbage and radishes, but are also common in broccoli, cucumber, strawberries and bananas. In their natural state, they can help lower blood pressure and reduce risk for heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer. They may also improve mitochondria efficiency, thereby enhancing physical performance.
However, when you cook nitrates or nitrites at high temperatures and combine them with protein, they become quite harmful to our health. This is because it creates a perfect storm for nitrosamine formation. These compounds take many forms, but they are all considered potentially dangerous carcinogens (the same ones found in tobacco, actually!) and could increase your risk of coronary heart disease by hardening and narrowing your arteries. Nitrates may also adversely affect the way your body metabolizes sugar, increasing your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Here are a few simple guidelines to help minimize nitrate/nitrite consumption in your meat:
- Choose organic (and local/pasture-raised) whenever possible. Organic meat may only contain naturally occurring nitrates from vegetables (typically celery salt).
- Avoid the following additives: sodium nitrate (E251), sodium nitrite (E250), potassium nitrate (E252) or potassium nitrite (E249)
- Avoid the words “cured” or “smoked”
- Always cook at the lowest possible heat to avoid burning or “charring” the meat.
Additionally, you can help offset the formation of nitrosamines by eating a diet rich in organic fruits and vegetables, avoiding processed/packaged snacks and taking an @sugarsnapshift approved multi-strain probiotic. Research shows that a clean diet and healthy microbiome plays a major role in whether nitrites become toxic or beneficial in the digestive tract.
Finally, On the upside, the USDA now has new dietary guidelines enforcing a maximum of 200 ppm of sodium nitrate, and requiring the addition of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) to processed meat. This helps minimize the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines while also preserving the safety and flavor of the meat.
By following these tips, and with the new government regulations in place, it’s easy to enjoy your barbeques and beach sandwiches (in moderation) without worry! Happy grilling!