Scientific Nutrition Update 27: Nitrates

Today’s episode is all about nitrates.  It was inspired by Meathead Goldwyn’s post over at Amazing Ribs.  People have falsely linked this compound to cancer so I wanted to do some mythbusting today.


For today’s episode we are going to talk about bacon, wait no, well kinda, we are talking about nitrates, a preservative in bacon and other cured meats.  The compound that has been in the news and featured in documentaries that hate science such as What the Health as a dangerous compound. Today I would like to challenge those rumors using my two favorite tools, science, and reasoning.  Let’s begin.


So let’s start at the most basic level.  Processed meats as a whole. If we go to what the World Health Organization says we will see, processed meat is considered a group 1 carcinogenic.  This means it is considered a carcinogenic compound in humans, due to its link to colorectal cancer. This is a compelling link, and there is an argument that can be made that consumption of processed meat may slightly increase your cancer risk.  However, many people have tried to draw the link from this to nitrates in specific thanks to some studies in the 1970’s that found giving large amounts of sodium nitrate could increase their risk of cancer. Let’s look at what all of the evidence actually says though.


There was an interesting study that looked at the connection between nitrate consumption and stomach cancer risk and concluded and I quote, “Newly published prospective epidemiological cohort studies indicate that there is no association between estimated intake of nitrite and nitrate in the diet and stomach cancer.”  This seems pretty comforting to me.


Furthermore, in 2003 the World Health Organization published a document discussing nitrates and they claimed there was no evidence to link nitrate consumption to human cancers.  This again seems to suggest that the people drawing the connection are fear-mongering and not actually looking at the underlying science.


There was an interesting piece in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that again concluded there was no real evidence to link it to cancer, but even better they proposed an interesting and relatively inexpensive experiment to figure out whether or not nitrate is healthy or dangerous.  Namely they propose feeding two groups of people a vegetable heavy diet, one receiving a diet high in nitrate rich vegetables, the other receiving a diet in nitrate deficient vegetables and seeing what different health effects emerged. This actually gives me a good point to transition into my next point and that is that:


Approximately 80% of dietary nitrates come from vegetables.  We are already getting significant amounts of nitrates even if you cut out every single food with nitrates added.  These are naturally occuring in vegetables.


Also nitrate-free bacon? They just douse it in things like celery seed that are rich in nitrates.  Still got nitrates in it guys. You aren’t fooling me.


There is even some who feel that nitrates may be an essential nutrient for promoting Nitric Oxide production for cardiovascular health.  In short they believe nitrate production is necessary to ensure enough nitric oxide is produced to maintain appropriate cardiovascular health, flipping the traditional narrative about the dangers of nitrates.  They even discuss how these compounds could be used therapeutically for treatment of diseases like myocardial infarction.


Now just to be clear, nitrate contaminated drinking water is bad and has been linked to dangerous health effects, but that is mostly irrelevant when we are looking at it in food consumption.  


Overall, as you can see there is very little evidence for a link between nitrates and cancer, and furthermore it may be a helpful nutrient.  Now I’m not saying bacon is healthy, I’m just saying nitrates do not make it unhealthy. Hat tip to Meathead Goldwyn at Amazing Ribs who inspired me to do this episode for you guys.  

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