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The Dangers of Nitrites: The Foods They are Found In and Why You Want to Avoid Them

Sodium nitrite (or sodium nitrate) is widely used as a preservative, antimicrobial agent, color fixative and flavoring in cured meats and other products.

nitrite risk

Children born to moms who ate a lot of nitrite-containing cured meats while they were pregnant may have an increased risk of brain tumors.

If you eat hot dogs, bacon, ham, luncheon meats, corned beef, smoked fish or any other type of processed meat, you are almost assuredly consuming nitrites.

Though this preservative has been studied for more than 50 years, there is still ongoing debate as to whether or not it's harmful. Some experts say that the health claims against the preservative have "not been substantiated" while others recommend avoiding them in your diet entirely.

Why You May Want to Avoid Nitrites

Numerous studies have found that nitrites contribute to a variety of negative health effects, which we've compiled here.

  • Cancer: When you eat nitrites, they can be converted into nitrosamines, which are potent cancer-causing chemicals, in your body. Specific cancers seem to be most affected, including:

    • Colorectal Cancer: People who ate the most processed meat were 50 percent more likely to develop lower colon cancer, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

    • Stomach Cancer: An investigation into 15 studies on processed meat found that the risk of stomach cancer increased from 15 percent to 38 percent if the processed meats ratio consumed by an individual rose by 30 grams.

    • Pancreatic Cancer: People who ate the most processed meats had a 68 percent higher risk of pancreatic cancer compared with those who ate the least, a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found.


If you love lunchmeat, pepperoni, bacon, sausage and other cured meats, look for nitrite-free varieties in your grocery store. If they're not there, request them!

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): People who ate more than 14 servings of cured meats per month scored lower on tests of lung function and had an increased risk of COPD compared with people who did not eat cured meats. For each additional serving of cured meat per month, the study found a 2 percent increased risk for COPD.

  • DNA Mutations: Hot dogs that contain nitrites have been found to contain DNA-mutating compounds. If enough DNA mutations occur in the gut, it could increase your risk of colon cancer.

  • Brain Tumors in Children: Children born to women who ate a lot of cured meats during pregnancy had a two to three times greater risk of developing a brain tumor than those born to mothers who did not eat cured meats. Children whose mothers at low levels of cured meats during pregnancy had a moderate increase in brain tumor risk, the study, published in Public Health Nutrition, found.

Does This Mean I Should Never Eat Bologna, Hot Dogs, Pepperoni ... ?

Yes ... and no. If you are concerned about nitrites and want to avoid them in your diet, you must cut out most all commercial hot dogs, luncheon meats, sausages, bacon, and processed meats (even that in canned soup).

However, supermarkets are increasingly offering nitrate/nitrite-free varieties of everyone's favorites. While some have pointed out that nitrite-free meats are often still "cured" using salt, sugar or another natural curing agent, which may be misleading to consumers, they do not, at least, contain nitrites.

To make even healthier meat choices, look for nitrite-free products that are also grass-fed and free of artificial flavors, artificial colors and byproducts.

It's also worth noting that processed meats are not the only sources of nitrites. Green leafy vegetables and root vegetables contain naturally occurring nitrites, though it's thought that compounds in the vegetables inhibit the formation of the harmful nitrosamines in your body.

Nitrites also exist in drinking water due to fertilizers, manure, animal feedlots and other environmental pollution sources.

Recommended Reading

12 Dangerous Food Additives: The Dirty Dozen Food Additives You Really Need to be Aware Of

15 Things You Never Thought You Needed to Know About ... Lunchmeat


Journal of the American Medical Association 2005 Jan 12;293(2):172-82

Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2006 Aug 2;98(15):1078-87

Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2005 Oct 5;97(19):1458-65

American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine April 2007, Vol 175. pp. 798-804

Public Health Nutrition 2001 Apr;4(2):183-9

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