Dangers of Sodium Nitrates and Nitrites

Dangers-of-Sodium-Nitrates-and-Sodium-NitritesSodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are similar salts which have long been used to preserve meats and fish. Sodium nitrate, with the chemical formula NaNO3, helps prevent bacterial growth in food while sodium nitrite, with the chemical formula NaNO2, is an oxidizing agent used as a meat preservative. Both salts are often found in bacon, hot dogs, ham, salami and other processed meats. They are used to help maintain the pink color of meat, inhibit botulism (poisonous bacterial growth) and to improve shelf life.

Nitrates and nitrites are also suspected carcinogens. Sodium nitrate is commonly called “saltpeter,” and is one of the main ingredients in gunpowder and explosives. Sodium nitrate is also used in chemical fertilizers since they provide sources of nitrogen to growing plants.

Both sodium nitrates and nitrites can occur naturally in nature in water and vegetables and ingestion of these natural salts is nontoxic, but chemically produced salts or salts in larger quantities can be poisonous. Both nitrates and nitrites (when ingested) are listed as Group 2A – Probable Carcinogenic Agents by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

If sodium nitrates and nitrites are dangerous, why do we still eat them? We have been using salts to preserve meat and fish for a thousand years, centuries before refrigeration. Sodium nitrates and nitrites keep meats (and fish) looking more pink, appetizing and fresh. Salts give meats (especially bacon and ham) an improved appearance by giving them a red or pink colorThese salts also prevent botulism and decreases the possibility of food poisoning.

Small and occasional amounts of treated meats and fish will do little long term damage. The adverse health problems are more likely with frequent ingestion or consuming large amounts of nitrates in your diet, large quantities of processed luncheon meats, hotdogs, sausages and bacon on a regular basis.

Methemoglobin – Methemoglobin or MetHB, according to the Environmental Health Investigations Branch of the California Department of Public Health is a blood disorder that is directly related to nitrate/nitrite ingestion. High amounts of nitrates and nitrites change the iron makeup (hemoglobin) of your blood and reduces your blood’s ability to bind to and carry oxygen to all cells of your body.

Too little oxygen in the blood can result in dizziness, headaches, irritability and bluish tones around the eyes, mouth, hands and feet. If left untreated, MetHB can lead to chronic respiratory and cardiovascular disorders and cell death.

Nitrosamines – Meats that are preserved with nitrates and nitrites can cause the body to form nitrosamines which are linked to pancreatic and gastric cancers. Nitrosamines occur when the preserved or processed meats are heated, cooked and consumed. Frying bacon, sausage, ham, bologna or cooking preserved meats over an open flame may be tasty but increases the hazards of the preserving salts.

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