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There seems to be a never-ending string of new dangers associated with nitrates. From research showing that nitrates in the body can lead to cancer, to warnings for pregnant women to avoid the nitrates in cured meats, to studies linking nitrates to alzhimers, colorectal cancer, and – most recently – triggering manic episodes in people suffering from manic-depressive disorder (also known as bipolar disorder), it seems like every year we discover new problems that nitrates are causing our bodies and our environment.

But if nitrates are such a bad thing, why are they an essential part of our diet? The short answer is because nitrates aren’t technically bad for us. Sodium nitrate itself isn’t what causes problems in our bodies, but our bodies convert sodium nitrate into sodium nitrite, which is where potential problems start coming in. One of two things can happen with sodium nitrite in the body. Either it’s converted into nitric oxide, or it’s converted into nitrosamines, and the nitrsamines are what’s actually causing all these problems.

Unfortunately, avoiding nitrosamines isn’t as simple as just eliminating nitrates and nitrites from your diet. For one thing, most of the nitrites we eat come from healthy vegetables – like spinach, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, celery, and beets. And most of the rest comes from our own saliva. For another, nitric oxide -you know, the other thing nitrites can turn into – perform essential functions in our bodies that aid our hearts, lungs, brains, kidneys, skin, digestive system, and immune system.

So what can we do to make sure the nitrate we’re eating ends up as healthy nitric oxide, and not damaging nitrosamines? While science hasn’t yet determined all of the environmental factors that lead to nitrites becomes nitrosamines, one big component seems to be what you’re eating those nitrates and nitrites with. Now, there isn’t any difference in the nitrates themselves that you get from eating spinach, versus those you get from eating pepperoni, but the curing processes used on meats – heating, smoking, salting, etc – plus the acidic nature of our own stomachs, can provide the right environment for the creation of secondary amines – the things nitrite needs to bond with in order to turn into nitrosamines.

There’s still a great deal of research that needs to be done before we fully understand what factors are needed for the nitrates we eat – and need – to turn into the very problematic nitrosamines, but until then, it’s probably better to put away the hot dogs, the beef jerky, and the pepperoni, and stick to getting your nitrates from vegetables.