Ingredient Watch: Nitrate In Your Food And Body

It’s already present in you naturally, it’s in our food, our water and soil, and it’s the ingredient that gets added to fertilizer so that plants grow quicker. Walk into any supermarket, and this chemical will be present on the shelves, in some form or another. The trouble is, if it accumulates too much in the body, your health and that of your family will suffer. Introducing nitrate, the chemical that is also added to meat in order to preserve it for longer, as it stops bacteria from growing and keeps meat from turning brown. In smoked and cured meats, for example, the nitrate levels are very high.

 Is it good or bad for you?

It depends on how the composition of the chemical changes when the person is consuming the food. It’s important to understand that, while naturally-ocurring nitrate is generally good for you, the same couldn’t be said for nitrite that gets converted into other compounds. Scientifically speaking, before any conversion takes place, one nitrate molecule is N03. When it converts into nitrites, it becomes N02. This conversion takes place in the mouth by way of saliva.

From here, one of two things happen. Nitrites can either become nitric oxide, a different compound which has a beneficial effect on blood pressure. When nitric oxide is added to blood pressure medication, the dilation of the arteries happens more efficiently, thereby relieving chest pain.

The danger comes into play when the nitrites convert into nitrosamines. These are the same compounds found in cigarette smoke, and considered carcinogenic. In high amounts, health experts warn that it will have a negative effect on your health. Elevated levels of nitrosamines in the body has been linked to pancreatic cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and other diseases. Especially in children, high levels of nitrosamines can result in health complications. Another risk of high nitrate levels is blue baby syndrome, which is characterized by an overall skin color with a blue or purple tinge, called cyanosis.

How much nitrate is considered safe?

According to the World Health Organisation, 3.7mg of nitrate per kilogram of weight is the safe amount. In other words, a person weighing 55kg should be allowed no more than 203mg of nitrates daily before the levels. Unfortunately, we now ingest an estimated 10 times more nitrate than recommended.

How is this being regulated?

While internationally, there are regulations put in place for the allowed nitrate levels in foods, many countries don’t have these. In South Africa, regulations don’t make provision for mandatory package labelling of nitrate and and nitrite concentration in foods.

How can you ensure healthy levels of nitrate for you and your family?

1. Try to limit your intake of meats which have been processed.

Through processes such as curing (where nitrates or nitrites have been added) or smoking. According to Harvard Health, these processes can lead to the formation of potentially cancer-causing (carcinogenic) chemicals such as N-nitroso-compounds (NOC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). A good alternative for red or processed meat is unprocessed, fresh chicken or turkey, which provides you with valuable vitamins, minerals and protein. Additional plant-based sources for protein to be considered are nuts, peanuts, soy, legumes and vegetables high in protein such as broccoli.

2. Opt for organic food wherever you can.

Synthetic nitrates and nitrites are not allowed as preservatives in organic packaged foods and meats.

3. If you drink out of the tap, find out whether your water contains nitrates or nitrites.

Public drinking water utilities test for these compounds and they are required to disclose their results to the public. If these chemicals are present, you can install a home water distiller, a reverse osmosis or an ion exchange filter to remove any fertilizer nitrates in the groundwater.

4. Include antioxidants to your diet. 

Certain vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin C, can help reduce the conversion of nitrates and nitrites to nitrosamines, thereby ensuring your nitrite levels stay at a healthy point.

Want to know more?

Registered Johannesburg-based dietitian, Lila Bruk highlights the importance of consumers being able to test their own food. As consumers we are becoming increasingly aware of not only the nutritional value, but also the safety, of the food we eat. With conditions like cancer on the rise, it is clear that greater precautions need to be taken to choose foods that will not only provide immediate nourishment but will also manage our future health and wellbeing. Nitrates in food have been linked with cancer and thus are very important to be conscious of in our food. Therefore, the ability to test our own food for nitrate content is both revolutionary and extremely empowering for the consumer.”

With this in mind, food safety company, Alvarita, recently launched the world’s first portable nitrate and radiation detector in South Africa. GreenTest is a compact, award-wining, device that tests nitrate levels in fruit, vegetables, meat, and water, helping people to quantify their daily nitrate intake and make healthier choices. The food safe nitrate levels are determined on the bases of World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. Click here to find out more about this device.

Click here to find out more about how you can set up your kitchen for better health.