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    Archive for the ‘nitrates’ Category

    You Ask, I Answer: Nitrates, Nitrites… and then Some!

    Cold cutslargeA recent post on cured meats, cancer risk, and nitrates sparked a significant number of comments and personal e-mails.

    Alas, here is a compilation of all the questions I received on the subject — and the appropriate answers.

    What are nitrates?

    Although they can be manufactured in laboratories (mainly to cure meats), nitrates are a type of inorganic (jargon for “carbon-free”) chemical found in nature.

    Fertilizers and sewerage contain significant amounts of nitrates (they contain high amounts of nitrogen, which bacteria feast on and, among other things, convert into nitrates).

    Is there a difference between nitrates and nitrites?

    Not really.  Most food manufacturers prefer nitrites because they present fewer complications from a processing standpoint.

    It’s akin to asking if there is a significant difference, nutritionally speaking, between the artificial sweeteners Splenda and aspartame.  Although their makeup is different, they are used in similar ways.

    Are nitrates only found in cold cuts?

    No.  Certain vegetables — including spinach, celery, lettuce, and eggplant — contain nitrates.

    So, then, why do we only hear about nitrates and cold cuts?

    For two reasons.  One: cold cuts contain higher amounts of nitrates/nitrites than vegetables.

    Number two: the average American consumes more cold cuts than celery, spinach, or eggplant.

    What are the health risks of consuming too many nitrates?

    This is where it all gets interesting — and slightly complicated.

    A large portion of nitrates are converted into nitrites by our bodies.

    Obviously, if you consume ham that contains nitrites, this first step is a moot point.

    Nitrites can then combine with particular compounds known as amines in the stomach.

    This combination forms a new hybrid compound: nitrosamines.

    Due to the cellular damage they cause, nitrosamines have been linked with higher risks of a wide array of cancers — particularly that of the prostate, colon, and pancreas.

    Earlier this summer, a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease concluded that frequent consumption of nitrates and nitrites relates to higher risks of developing the neural disorder.

    Some research also suggests that when nitrites in food are exposed to high heat — as they are, say, when you fry bacon — their chemical structure morphs into that of nitrosamines.

    PS: Another reason why you don’t hear much about nitrites in vegetables?  All nitrate-containing vegetables also provide vitamin C, which has been shown to reduce the formation of nitrosamines in the body.

    Are there any guidelines for what amount of nitrates is safe to consume?

    The Environmental Protection Agency has come up with a “parts per million” guideline in reference to the water supply, but there is no exact amount in regards to food.

    The general idea with cold cuts is: the less, the better.  Conservative guidelines recommend no more than two ounces per week, while more liberal recommendations place the limit at six ounces per week.

    Since vitamins C and E appear to reduce nitrite-to-nitrosamine conversion, one “safety measure” you can always take is to include a food high in either of those nutrients in a meal that contains processed meats.

    For example, add plenty of sliced tomatoes to a ham sandwich, or make bacon the accompaniment to a broccoli and red pepper frittata.

    Do organic cold cuts contain nitrites?

    Some of them don’t.  As with everything else, it’s always good to check the ingredient list.


    You Ask, I Answer: Turkey Bacon

    g25825828a52574bb2a79cf8342ce45836cd560d6733ce5Is turkey bacon/ham really better for you than regular bacon and ham?

    — @Beth_Pettit
    Via Twitter


    Both are high in sodium (approximately 325 milligrams of sodium per measly ounce!) and highly processed.

    Turkey bacon and ham are lower in total and saturated fat, but not in amounts significant enough to classify it as healthier.

    An ounce of turkey ham contains 0.4 grams of saturated fat; an ounce of conventional ham provides 0.8 grams.

    Classifying turkey bacon and ham as healthier than conventional varieties is like saying that Coca-Cola is healthier than orange soda because it has 12 fewer grams of sugar.

    I recommend taking it easy with all processed meat products — including soy-based faux cold cuts.  They are low on nutrients, high in sodium, and most contain troublesome preservatives (mainly nitrites and nitrates).

    My advice?  Keep the bacon to two strips with brunch every Sunday.

    As far as cold cuts go — if you love them in a sandwich, treat yourself to two slices a week — no more.

    The evidence linking frequent consumption of processed meats with increased risk of stomach, colon, and prostate cancer is too strong to ignore.


    You Ask, I Answer: Nitrates in Commercial Baby Food

    [In regards to your earlier posting about nitrates and baby food], someone told me that baby food companies can screen for nitrates, any truth to that?

    — Kate (last name unknown)
    Via the blog

    That is certainly true, but it does not mean those products are nitrate-free.

    Nitrates are naturally occurring in many vegetables and can not be removed.

    That said, since nitrate levels in vegetables can differ depending on growing conditions (i.e.: the amount of nitrogen in the soil and water), it is very possible to get batches of spinach with higher amount of nitrates than others.

    When screening nitrate amounts, individual companies simply set up their own criteria (“we only use vegetables containing x number of parts per million of nitrates or less”) and apply it when making baby food.

    “Screened for nitrates” does not mean “nitrate free.”

    Remember, though, babies six months and older are in no danger by eating foods that naturally contain nitrates.

    “Screened for nitrates” is a marketing, much like adding vitamins to soda or a pinch of fiber to cookies.


    You Ask, I Answer: Nitrates & Baby Food

    I read that I should buy jarred baby food for things like spinach since the fresh produce has nitrates, which can be really bad for babies.

    Does that sound right?

    — Jane Shou
    Waltham, MA

    Hmmm. Seems like whatever you read was written by a confused author.

    Let’s do some untangling.

    First, the issue of nitrates (also known as nitric acid salts.)

    Since they naturally exist in water and soil, it makes sense that most vegetables naturally contain them (root vegetables and leafy green ones contain them at higher levels).

    Although growing conditions affect actual levels, spinach, kale, and cabbage are typically the “worst offenders.”

    Nitrates can become dangerous if they body converts them to nitrites (which can cause a particular type of anemia in babies.)

    Some basic human physiology, though, explains why there is truly no reason to worry.

    By the sixth month of life, babies have a sufficient amount of hydrochloric acid in their stomachs to destroy bacteria that convert nitrates to nitrites.

    Since solid foods should not be introduced until the sixth month anyway, babies are protected from harm by the time vegetables can be introduced in their diet.

    Commercially prepared vs. made from scratch is completely irrelevant.

    Since nitrates are naturally occurring, jarred baby food containing any of these vegetables will also have nitrates (this includes organic brands.)

    So, vegetables that naturally contain nitrates can safely be fed to babies six months or older.


    Numbers Game: Answer

    An eight-year-long National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health study that followed 500,000 adults ages 50 – 71 — and was recently published in the Public Library of Science Medicine Journal — found that the top twenty percent of red meat consumers had a 20 percent higher risk of developing colorectal cancer than those who consumed lower amounts.

    According to the American Cancer Society, “researchers aren’t certain what it is about red meat that might influence cancer risk. The iron and fat it contains may be culprits. For processed meat, the salt, smoke residue, and nitrates and nitrites used as preservatives may play a role.”

    I would also add the fact that meat-centric diets tend to be low in fiber — a crucial weapon in reducing one’s risk of many cancers, especially colorectal.

    In any case, if you choose to consume red and processed meats, it is highly recommened you limit consumption to no more than two servings (a total of six ounces) a week.


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