Nitrates in food: Do they cause cancer or are they heart healthy?

JOONDALUP, Australia — There are plenty of warnings out there to avoid processed meats, largely due to the presence of nitrates that studies have linked to cancer. At the same time, scientists have found that these same compounds could be heart healthy, leaving meat-eaters in a state of confusion. Now, researchers from Edith Cowan University’s (ECU) Nutrition and Health Innovation Research Institute are taking a closer look at these conflicting views to finally find out whether nitrates are good or bad for your health.

“We get nitrate from three major dietary sources: meat, water and vegetables,” explains the review’s leader Dr. Catherine Bondonno.

“Nitrate’s reputation as a health threat stems from 1970, when two studies showed it can form N-nitrosamines, which are highly carcinogenic in laboratory animals. However, no human studies have confirmed its potential dangers, and our clinical and observational studies support nitrate preventing cardiovascular disease, if it’s sourced from vegetables. So the review looked to unpack all of that, identify new ways forward and ways that we can solve this puzzle, because it’s really time to address it: it’s been 50 years,” she adds in a university release.

sausage processed meat
(Credit: Edwin Jaulani from Pexels)

Are all nitrates bad nitrates?

Current guidelines suggest that people avoid nitrates, despite recent research which say it’s not that simple. Within these guidelines, there’s no differentiation between meat, vegetable, and water sources. Even the studies from the 1970s had evidence suggesting that not all nitrates acted in the same way.

“For instance, unlike meat and water-derived nitrate, nitrate-rich vegetables contain high levels of vitamin C and/or polyphenols that may inhibit formation of those harmful N-nitrosamines associated with cancer,” Dr. Bondonno explains.

The researcher further stresses the importance of updating research and guidelines to make things more transparent with consumers.

“The public are unlikely to listen to messages to increase intake of nitrate-rich vegetables, if they are concerned about a link between nitrate intake and cancer. We need to be sure nitrate-rich vegetables don’t actually have an increased risk of cancer if we consume a higher amount.”

It’s important to get accurate findings and conclusions from this, particularly because many people are consuming nitrates in several forms. For instance, nitrate supplements are commonly used among athletes to help with performance. Additionally, many organic cured meat companies use vegetable nitrate extracts and label their products as “clean” to attract health-conscious consumers, even though they may not really be healthier for you at all.

Bowl of Spinach
Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash

Where should people get their nitrates?

Dr. Bondonno also mentions that she understands that if scientists are split on the subject, then consumers are fully within their rights to be confused on what to eat, too.

“They’re probably thinking, ‘If I can’t have a salad, what CAN I have?’.”

Despite such confusion, she encourages people to not reduce their vegetable intake, and instead should actually strive to get their nitrates from places like kale and spinach. However, to settle everything for good, the only step forward is more research.

“The potential cancer link was raised 50 years ago; now it’s time to conduct an in-depth analysis to distinguish fact from fiction,” concludes Dr. Bondonno.

The findings are published in the journal Trends in Food Science & Technology.

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