The first time I read about dangerous nitrates in everyday foods we eat was in Dr. Atkins’ first book about a low-carb ketosis regime. Despite the title phrase “Diet Revolution” the author make it very clear in the text that his nutritional method was not a “diet” but rather a lifestyle choice.
Despite nay-sayers who continue to promote excessive carb-loading, the science behind Atkins’ medical opinions is sound and is supported by many other experts in nutrition.
Highly processed lunch meats are loaded with potentially harmful nitrates, I discovered. Food manufacturers use nitrates and nitrites to cure such foods as bacon, salami, and sausages. They also add color for non-nutritional visual appeal and as a preservative to ensure a longer shelf life.
After reading Atkins’ scientifically-based ideas about what to avoid putting in your mouth in order to burn fat rather than retain it, I drastically reduced my consumption of lunch meats and started to read food labels for added nitrite content. Canned beans and packaged seafood were often loaded with the stuff, which surprised me.
It’s impossible to avoid nitrogen because it is one of the most common and abundant elements found on Earth, making up about 80 percent of the air we breathe. All living creatures have organic nitrogen, a principal component of essential proteins, in their cells. Both plants and animals recycle nitrogen all the time and contain natural nitrates and nitrites.
Inorganic nitrogen may exist in the free state as a gas (N2) or as nitrate (NO3-), nitrite (NO2-), or ammonia (NH3+). These different derivatives of nitrogen are important to understand because they do impact our health and well-being.
Scientists are telling us that naturally-occurring nitrites and nitrates are harmless. But their synthetic counterparts are troublesome and potentially lethal.
Along with avoiding nitrate-laden foods, I amped up my intake of antioxidant vitamin C to 1,000 mg/day despite the conventional scientific wisdom that the body simply can’t process that much of this vital nutrient. I didn’t (and still don’t) care how much waste vitamin C passed through in my urine because I wanted to reduce the amount of nitrosamines inside my body.
Nitrosamines cause cancer in laboratory animals and are being studied for links to human carcinomas as well. These toxic chemicals are present in tobacco products and smoke, fish, beer, fried foods, and cured meats.
Where do nitrosamines come from? The answer is very sciency:
“Nitrate is reduced to nitrite by the enzyme nitrate reductase, which occurs in a number of bacteria…nitrite is converted to nitrosating agents which subsequently react with amines in the meat during processing, storage, and cooking to form nitrosamines.”
The key to understanding good nitrogen gone bad is the bacterial reaction described above. Scientific research is showing that “nitrates themselves are relatively inert, until they are turned into nitrites by bacteria in the mouth or enzymes in the body.”
Nitrogen is the major ingredient in most commercial chemical fertilizer. In the right doses, it helps plants grow fast and strong. But have you ever accidentally dumped a pile of it on your lawn, only to find a yellowed dead patch there later? That’s because too much nitrogen can kill living organisms.
When fertilizers run off into our water sources a nitrate reaction (NO3-) occurs which can reduce the amount of oxygen available to every life form present there. High enough nitrate levels will kill fish and other aquatic animals – and plants.
Municipal and industrial wastewater, septic tanks, feedlot discharges, animal wastes, and car exhausts are principle sources of nitrogen which end up in rivers, lakes, and tap water. But it is the bacteria living in water that convert nitrates (NO2-) to nitrites (NO3-).
Inside animal bodies – including humans – nitrites react chemically with hemoglobin (red blood cells), creating methemoglobin which actually destroys the ability of the red blood cells to carry life-supporting oxygen throughout the body.
In babies under three months old, an excess of methemoglobin causes a serious medical condition with a very long scientific name (methemoglobinemia – meth-em-oh-glo-bi-NEE-mee-ya) which is also called more simply “blue baby syndrome.” Experts caution parents not to give their babies water with nitrate levels higher than 1mg/l (one milligram per liter, about a quart of liquid).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets maximum levels of nitrate and nitrite in drinking water, as this fact sheet from the Water Quality Association shows. Note that the EPA terms nitrate and nitrite as “contaminants” – substances that are impure or undesirable.
A new study from the Environmental Working Group and Duke University, the first of its kind to analyze and assess nitrate exposure from drinking water for the entire U.S. population, linked between 2,300 and 12,594 cancer cases reported in individual states to nitrates in tap water. 54-82% of those cases were colorectal cancer (CRC).
The EPA set the current legal limit for nitrates in drinking water to 10 parts per million (ppm). However, other recent research indicates that rates of CRC, thyroid cancers, and birth defects rise at even lower levels of exposure.
You can find out how the estimated nitrate concentration in your state’s groundwater from a list published by the EPA.
Rather than stock up on bottled water – which may also contain nitrates – consider installing a water purification system in your home and business.