Nitrates are not all bad. In fact, they can be good for you when found in certain vegetables, like spinach and celery. But in large amounts, they can cause a number of health problems. Here’s what you need to know about nitrates, including which foods contain them and the potential health risks associated with consuming too many nitrates.
What are nitrates and why are they used?
Nitrates are chemical compounds made up of nitrogen and oxygen. Most commonly found in water and soil, they can also be added to certain foods as a preservative or color fixative. Nitrites are compounds that are very similar to nitrates but have one less oxygen atom than nitrates do.
Nitrites, like nitrates, can be naturally occurring or added to food. They’re often used as an ingredient in curing salt — which is a mixture of sodium chloride (table salt) and sodium nitrite — for meats like ham, bacon, hot dogs and other cured or smoked products. This type of salt is pink for quick identification in order to avoid confusion with table salt. The use of this type of salt helps prevent food poisoning by killing bacteria that cause botulism and keeps the meat from turning brown due to oxidation (which doesn’t affect safety).
Where can you find nitrates?
Many vegetables contain nitrates. In the body, nitrates are processed into nitrites, which are used to form proteins that are important in many bodily processes. For example, nitric oxide is needed to allow blood vessels to relax and dilate. Nitrites also have antimicrobial effects and help prevent infection in the gastrointestinal tract.
Nitrates and nitrites can also be found in some processed meats, but it is the nitrates present in vegetables that have been the focus of much research.
Vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, celery, and beets are rich sources of naturally occurring nitrates. However, there are also significant amounts of these compounds in other vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, cabbage and peas. Generally speaking, the amount of nitrate varies from one vegetable to another but some varieties may be richer sources than others (for example iceberg lettuce contains about 5 times less nitrate than red leaf lettuce). As a general rule, root vegetables tend to contain more naturally occurring nitrates than leafy green or fruits.