Flavour of the Week

Of Bacon and Beets: Nitrates in Food

flavour-of-the-week-logo“Numerous scientific panels have evaluated sodium nitrite safety and the conclusions have essentially been the same: nitrite is not only safe, it is an essential public health tools because it has a proven track record in preventing botulism”. Maple Leaf Foods

As a member of Dietitians of Canada I receive many brochures, coupons and the like from food manufacturers – sometime it’s to publicize a new product, sometimes it’s to try to convince me that certain processed foods aren’t that bad. While most get no more than a cursory glance before a toss in the recycling bin (sorry Canadian Sugar Institute!), the new “What your should know about nitrate, nitrite and a healthy balanced diet” pamphlet from Maple Leaf Foods was downright insulting (and I’m not the only one who thought so)! Did they really think they could convince me that the nitrates in bacon are good for cardiovascular health?

Maple Leaf does a good job of owning up to celery extract as a source of sodium nitrite and explains the food safety benefits of nitrates and nitrites too. But that is where the flattery ends. For all the defending they do and emphasizing the importance of nitrites in preventing foodborne illness, need I remind them that nitrites do nothing to prevent listeria outbreaks, as was readily apparent in 2008?

Yes – nitrates and nitrites do naturally occur in some nutritious foods like spinach, broccoli and tomatoes. True – breast milk colostrum is full of nitrites. Are they really trying to compare deli ham with beets and breast milk though? Nitrates and nitrites do have very real functions in the body – they are converted to the potent vasodilator nitric oxide (NO), which is important for cardiovascular function and blood flow (aside: increased NO production is what makes Viagra work!).

The fact remains that the nitrates/nitrates in lettuce, radishes and spinach have never been linked to an increased risk of cancer; those added to cured meats HAVE been linked to cancer, though the results have been somewhat equivocal (some show an increased risk, others do not) (1). While Maple Leaf suggests that the evidence supporting an increased risk is old and outdated, the EPIC study (a large, prospective study of cancer risk) recently found that N-nitroso compounds, particularly N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) which is found in smoked, pickled and cured foods (not veggies!), was associated with an increased risk of GI cancers, especially rectal cancer (2). The WCRF/AICR’s Second Expert Report, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective still recommends limited processed meats as they are “convincing or probable causes of some cancers” (3).

No Baloney’s advice? As for the “all-natural” and “preservative-free” products containing celery extract, they may actually contain more nitrates than conventional versions. These natural preservatives *could* hypothetically be safer than their synthetically produced counterparts, but we are reserving judgment until there is some actual research to substantiate claims (4).

Keep in mind that these added nitrates and nitrates, natural or synthetic, are used as preservatives in processed foods, which are typically energy-dense and nutrient-poor. While we agree that the evidence regarding nitrates/nitrates and cancer is by no means rock solid, whether it’s the nitrates, saturated fat or excessive salt in hot dogs and bacon to blame for negative health outcomes seems irrelevant – these are foods that we shouldn’t be eating a lot of any way. If you want to boost NO production in your body, best bets would be beets, spinach or other veggies… not bologna (4).

Safe (re: not toxic) may not be synonymous with good for you – watch The Nature of Things “Programmed to be Fat” episode for examples of this very concept. While we do agree that cured meats can be a part of a healthy diet (we like bacon as much as the next gal!), it’s a matter of how much and how often. There are no clear guidelines for how often you can consume these products without risk of adverse outcomes, but we would suggest keeping it to less than weekly and watch the portion size (i.e., a Saturday morning “bacon bender” won’t cut it). If added-synthetic nitrite foods are a part of your current diet, evidence suggests that adequate vitamin C intake (preferably via veggies and fruit, not additives or supplements!) may provide some protective benefit against cancer risk (2).


  1. Milkowski A, Garg HK, Coughlin JR, Bryan NS. Nutritional epidemiology in the context of nitric oxide biology: a risk-benefit evaluation for dietary nitrite and nitrate. Nitric Oxide 2010; 22:110-9.
  2. Loh YH, Jakszyn P, Luben RN, Mulligan AA, Mitrou PN, Khaw KT. N-Nitroso compounds and cancer incidence: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Norfolk Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2011; 93:1053-61.
  3. World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. Washington, DC: AICR, 2007.
  4. Hord NG, Tang Y, Bryan NS. Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009; 90:1-10.

7 thoughts on “Of Bacon and Beets: Nitrates in Food

  1. I’d have to argue we probably shouldn’t be eating deli ham at all, to be honest.

    Okay, I’m one of those whacked out loonies who thinks that processed meats are evil. Not evil, just dangerous, full of fat and unhealthy. When you know what goes into processed meats (and I do – we slaughter our own animals), you are amazed that they’re even legal as food fit for human consumption.

    ( I also think that the whole factory farming system should be banned. But that’s another issue altogether.)

    • No Baloney agrees entirely! Thank you for your insight and comments. We appreciate your perspective. Nitrates, fat and sodium are all a concern in processed meats. A recent report found poultry is one of the leading sources of sodium in the US diet b/c they are injecting the meats with salt water. More on this in our Flavour of the Week post on Monday.

    • I work full time so I get where you’re cnimog from. I’d say over the past year we’ve moved more and more away from processed foods but I’m still not where I’d like to be, and I may never be since I do have to work. I do spend alot of time on Saturday doing prep for the following week, but I have been trying to limit it to half a day so I do actually get to see my family. I am like you we have breakfast and lunch down, but I struggle with lunches (school lunches!) and snacks. One thing that we found that has tremendously helped with getting out of the sandwich/lunch meat run are the Thermos Foogo’s I got them on Amazon for two of my kids. They keep food hot until lunchtime and are small. Although I do send some things that probably aren’t so good sometimes (Amy’s tomato soup, Annie’s Bernie O’s), I try to send leftover soup, spaghetti, whatever will fit. I too have been buying the Hormel and am appalled at reading this. So much for my better option . We are lucky enough to live in a rural area so I can source out some meat, and I should note that we are also not independently wealthy. It is a process and do your best (your best, not someone else’s best) I keep having to remind myself of that too. Good luck!

  2. Pingback: Want to Slash the Sodium? Slay the Sandwich! | No Baloney

  3. OK, so here is the $64,000 qsuetion: I hear all of this, but what does a working mother of two who does not live near a farm and is not independently wealthy do?? I don’t have $700 to buy a half a cow, and I have no idea how much chickens and raw milk cost even if I could get my hands on them. Aside from the money, I’m curious if any of you who are dedicated to this renegade way of eating are working mothers or are you all stay-at-home Moms? Not that that means you don’t work as hard, but you might just have a bit more time to shop and cook and get all the food stuff right for the family. When you work 9-5 and have the weekends to entertain your kids, clean the house, hit the neighbor’s kid’s birthday party, there is not much time left over to be cooking a roast beef from scratch! Although I wish I could, believe me. I HAVE to turn to store bought stuff but it’s so expensive to buy good stuff. Breakfast and dinner I have down, pretty much. My kids’ lunch is the problem. They don’t eat tuna, and deli turkey/chicken is the only source of protein I know of that they will eat and that I have time for, and the Applegate Farms is RIDICULOUSLY priced. Any suggestions? Sorry this got so long but thanks for listening.

  4. Do you watch for nitrates and ntriites in your diet?I’m definitely not concerned for the exact reasons you have included in your post (and you beat me to it, I was going to write a post about this but not with this much research, thats for sure!) But yeah, I knew that compared to vegetables, eating them everyday, occasional lunchmeat isn’t going to add too much to the overall picture. You should write about the mechanisms our body has in place to protect us from the toxic production of nitrosamines After all, we did evolve eating lots of veggies!

  5. Pingback: Eat This! Beets | No Baloney

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