By Dr Joe

Let’s talk about nitrates in vegetables versus meat. Are the nitrates in vegetables Vs meat bad for you? Or are these nitrates good for you?

Is there a difference to how our bodies treat and interact with the nitrates in vegetables Vs nitrates in meat? Which of these nitrates is safer to eat? is it better to eat vegetables because of the nitrates and should we avoid meat because of the nitrates in meat?

nitrates in vegetables vs meat

I will endeavour to answer all of these questions in this article.

There has always been this debate about nitrates in food. We are all too concerned about our health these days and for good reason too. I’d like to know if what I am eating, especially on a regular basis, is good for my health. Or is it possible I’m unwittingly damaging my health.

Time for “travelling in the dark” is far gone. The first thing to note is that; there are nitrates in both plant produce and animal products.

Full disclosure

I should say this upfront. I eat a plant-based diet.

But that is not to say, I don’t eat meat. I eat meat, fish and plants but I limit how much meat I eat. So, this article is not written with a vegan bias or anything like that because I am a full-blown flexitarian.


What’s the deal with these Nitrates and Nitrites in our food?

Nitrates are naturally occurring in plant food produce but in animal foods, they are artificially added to preserve these foods.

Nitrates are relatively harmless on their own. It is when they get converted to their subunits that the potential to cause harm arises.

Nitrates have 3 oxygen molecules attached to the Nitrogen atom.

However, nitrates become bioactive when one of the oxygen atoms is removed leaving 2 oxygen atoms attached to the Nitrogen atom. A Nitrogen atom with 2 oxygen molecules instead of 3 becomes a Nitrite.

nitrate conversion to nitrite

So, the bioactive form of Nitrate is the Nitrite.

This conversion from Nitrate to Nitrite is trigerred by bacteria, fermentation, acid in the gut and ensuing enzymatic activity. And that enzymatic activity begins in the mouth.

Why Nitrates are good for you?

This breakdown of Nitrate does not stop at the Nitrite step.


If you have ever pondered the question: are nitrates in vegetables bad for you?
Well, you are going to love this analysis below because; it explains why nitrates in vegetables are not bad for you. It will encourage you to eat more vegetables, if anything.

Here it is:
The Nitrite from the nitrate is further broken down to 2 other potential compounds – Nitric Oxide and Nitrosamines (N-Nitroso compounds also called NOCs).

The first piece of good news is; nitrates in vegetables tend to get converted to Nitric oxide more by default. Nitrates in meat on the other hand, have more potential to get converted to N-nitroso compounds for reasons I will explain later on.

Keep reading.

You should celebrate Nitric Oxide because you want and need it. Plenty of it. Nitric Oxide optimizes our health in leaps and bounds.

Nitric oxide is beneficial to our health immensely.
What’s weird is that, nitric oxide is actually a free radical but a nice free radical.

Usually free radicals are a ‘nasty piece of work’ as far as health is concerned, but Nitric oxide is one free radical that you don’t want to get rid of. You want it. Why?

…because Nitric oxide is a biological signalling molecule that enhances the function of the lining of our blood vessel walls. Not only that, Nitric oxide also protects the organelle in every cell of our body called the mitochondria.

Mitochondria is where energy production takes place. Every cell needs to make its own energy to function. That production factory is called mitochondria.

As it happens, Nitric oxide made from nitrates protects these tiny mitochondria organelles. This guarantees continuous efficient energy production.

The job of the Nitric oxide is to make the blood vessels walls pliable and more compliant. This enhances unhindered blood flow inside our blood vessels. Meaning oxygen and nutrients are carried to our tissues much more readily.

This allows for optimal health because this function of Nitric oxide lowers your global blood pressure – a recipe for control of high blood pressure.

nitrates in vegetables

Now you know why we advice you to eat beets, spinach, kale, celery, collard greens to lower high blood pressure or maintain a normal blood pressure. Nitric oxide supplied from the nitrates in these vegetables is the reason why.

Talking about optimal health, nitric oxide from nitrates in vegetables also prevents the stickiness of blood because it prevents what we call platelet aggregation. This activity thins your blood and helps prevents strokes and blood clots.


Why nitrates may be bad for you?

Nitrates can be a double-edged sword. They can swing either way.

As I said earlier, nitrates when broken down to nitrites could either become nitric oxide which we love and covet or become N-nitroso componds (NOCs) which you don’t want to touch with a barge pole.

These Nitrosamines (N-Nitroso compounds also called NOCs) are not really health-friendly. If you ever wondered about nitrates in food side effects, it is these N-nitroso compounds that are to blame. And I will talk about these nitrates in food side effects shortly.

Nitrosamines are bad news for your health.

The good news is that the nitrates in vegetables don’t appear to form the dreaded N-nitroso compounds. It is the nitrates from meat that tend to form these nasty N-nitroso compounds (NOCs).

Straightaway that’s the essential difference between nitrates in vegetables vs nitrates in meat. I shall explain later why the nitrates in vegetables behave differently to the nitrates in meat.

There’s plenty of evidence to support the notion that nitrates in meat are harmful.

Here is one.
This analysis done by the World Cancer Research Fund found that eating just 1.8 ounces of processed meat per day — about one sausage or two to three slices of bacon — raised your likelihood of bowel cancer by 20%.

Are environmental Nitrates harmful?

From the epidemiological standpoint, nitrates are seen as harmful to human health. That is the reason there are regulations as to how much nitrate can be allowed in our drinking water. The amount of nitrate allowed in drinking water should not exceed 50 mg/l.

Because there is a risk of blue baby syndrome or what in medical parlance is called Methemoglobinemia. Young babies especially under 6 months of age are not able to deal with a large nitrate load. That environmental nitrate regulation is therefore essential.

The amount of nitrates in the soil is also subject to regulation. Why is this?

Excess nitrate in the soil will lead to a huge concentration of nitrates in our fruits and vegetables. We want some nitrates in our vegetables but we do not want excess nitrates in our plant produce.


More evidence to support the difference in Nitrates in Vegetables Vs Meat?

Well, the truth of the matter is research seems to tell us that there is a difference between nitrates in vegetables Vs meat.

The most studied vegetable is beetroot. There’s plenty of research evidence to support the beneficial effects of beetroot. This study even went further to look at the dose-dependent response of athletes to beetroot juice. It looked at cardiovascular health enhancement of beetroot juice and exercise performance.

The evidence seems to support the view that nitrates from vegetables like beet, celery, spinach, kale etc are safe and actually good for you.

Gunter Kuhnle, a professor of food and nutritional sciences at the University of Reading in the UK says:

“The nitrates in vegetables may be beneficial. When you eat nitrates, they are converted to nitrites by bacteria in your mouth”

Nitrates from animal sources however are not really naturally occurring. Nitrates in meat are added as preservatives.

The most commonly used nitrate in animal products is Sodium Nitrate. This and other nitrites are added to the meat to stop the growth of deadly bacteria. That way, you can eat your meat safely without the risk of food poisoning.

The nitrates and nitrites in meat also enhance the flavour of the processed meat whilst conferring on it a red or pinkish colour. What kind of meat are we talking about?

We are talking about hot dogs, bacon, chorizo, pepperoni, ham, bacon, sausages, pastrami and salami. These processed meats contain artificial nitrates or nitrites in them. The nitrates in these processed meat are thought to be harmful to health.

nitrates in meat harmful

There is a reasonable association between meat consumption and colorectal cancer and a possible explanation seems to be the nitrate in the meat.

This study examined the association of red meat, processed meat, and poultry consumption with the risk of early death in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC).

The study conclusion:

“The results of our analysis support a moderate positive association between processed meat consumption and mortality, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases, but also to cancer”

Why are the nitrates in vegetables like beet, celery, kale, spinach, arugula not harmful and the nitrates in meat harmful?

This question is not a very straightforward one but I shall do my best to clear the muddy waters.

For a start, it doesn’t matter the source of the nitrates. Whether you get your nitrates from vegetables or from meat, the increase in the amount of nitrates or nitrites absorbed into the circulation is essentially the same.

So, something else must be going on for this differential outcome between plant nitrates and meat nitrates.

Here’s what’s going on:

About 12 g of proteinacous material is offloaded into the large intestine every day. 50% of that is from dietary sources. This amount might vary a little bit depending on how much dietary protein is consumed and the physical form of the food consumed.

A careful breakdown of all of this consumed protein load takes place by bacterial action leading to deamination, decarboxylation and fermentation.

This process is dynamic, hence a higher concentration of amine byproducts are found in the tail end of the gut – the colorectal region compared to the earlier aspects of the intestines.

These amine substances react with nitrosating compounds leading to formation of N-nitroso compounds(NOCs) which are basically nitrosamines. These nitrosamines are not nice.

Nitrosamines (N-nitroso compounds) have been implicated in mutations and hence carcinogenicity.

This explains why the damage by these toxic substances is a lot more serious. For instance, cancers in the colorectal region. Mainly because the large intestines is a very fertile site for nitrosation and formation of nitrosamines, phenols and cresols.


But why does the nitrate in meat cause harm to health and nitrate in vegetables not lead to harm?

A scholarly explanation for nitrates in meat causing cancer has to do with the presence of heme-iron in meat as opposed to presence of non-heme iron in vegetables like celery, spinach, beet, kale, arugula.

Here’s what I mean.

We’ve already agreed that bacterial action in the large intestine acting on nitrates and nitrites leads to formation of toxic compounds like nitrosamines, phenols, cresols etc through fermentation.

Obviously this fermentation foisted by bacterial action applies to both meat and vegetable foods, right?

But the essential difference is the heme factor.

It would appear that the heme in the meat products up-regulates the formation of these potentially carcinogenic substances. You end up with more of these toxic mutagenic substances that are harmful to health when you consume meat.

Plus meat has saturated fat which may play a contributory role too.

Here’s what Professor Kuhnle had to say on the subject:

“What makes processed meats so ideal for forming N-nitroso compounds is that they have a combination of nitrite and proteins from the meat. And the meat’s heme seems to help convert them into N-nitroso compounds”

In contrast, plant foods like beet, celery, spinach, kale, collard greens (even though have nitrates) have non-heme iron and no saturated fats, so you have lower levels of these potentially harmful substances being formed. The levels do not reach a threshold that could induce colorectal cancer.

In addition to that; plants have hundreds of micro-nutrients that meats do not possess and these extra micronutrients in vegetables may offer our bodies a protective effect against cancer.

For instance, vegetables have Vitamin C and polyphenols that make it a harder task for nitrosamines to form. Meat hasn’t got Vitamin C nor does meat have polyphenols. This point should not be underestimated.

Hence, in the nitrates in vegetables vs meat debate, vegetable nitrates are safer for the human body to deal with. Meat nitrates on the other hand are potentially carcinogenic.

So, the bottomline is nitrates in meat are best avoided if you want to prevent colon cancer.

What can you do to make your meat safer?

See video below. You can make your bacon safer by using that preparation technique in the video below for your bacon.

Frying your bacon, baking it, broiling it or cooking in a baconer produces the most nitrosamines. The method in that video according to research produced the least amount of nitrosamines, hence it is recommended.

You may also use nitrate-free bacon, nitrate-free sausages, nitrate-free ham, nitrate-free hot dog.
Use any of those, if you are someone who cannot do without processed meat in your diet.

Suggested further reading:
Broccoli and your Abdominal Fat (Odd fat fighters)