Nitrates Are Bad for You. Really?

Photo: Lara604/Flickr .

Growing up, bacon was part of my family's special breakfasts, and oh-how-special those breakfasts were. Since most mornings included oatmeal, cream of wheat, eggs and toast, or not-so-sugary breakfast cereal, bacon seemed like a luxury fit for a lazy Saturday morning.

Relatives on diets would occasionally serve us turkey bacon, which tasted terrible to me. Why would anyone put themselves through such a miserable eating experience, I wondered at the time. It was either "real" bacon or nothing. (Though, I admit that I've since found a turkey bacon that we love.)

When my husband and I were married and I found myself enjoying cooking even more, I quickly found that adding a bit of bacon to anything made it taste better. Lack-luster salad? Add bacon. Boring lentil soup? Add bacon. Boring breakfast? Add bacon. You get the picture.

My husband enjoyed this culinary inspiration revolving around bacon for a time, but then I decided that it just couldn't be good for us to be enjoying so much bacon. After that I bought it only once in a while and then tried to buy high-quality bacon as I had become concerned with the typical meat sold in stores. In more recent years, I have come to enjoy bacon simply preserved with salt and sugar, and sometimes I even make my own with coconut sugar and unrefined salt.

But the fact of the matter is, we enjoy bacon much less because of the standards I impose on my bacon. So, an article by Chris Kresser, an acupuncturist and practitioner of integrative medicine, on the nitrate myth caught my interest. I already knew that most "nitrate-free" bacon had high amounts of natural nitrates, most often in the form of celery juice, but there were other fascinating facts I had never heard.

For example,

It may surprise you to learn that the vast majority of nitrate/nitrite exposure comes not from food, but from endogenous sources within the body. (1) In fact, nitrites are produced by your own body in greater amounts than can be obtained from food, and salivary nitrite accounts for 70-90% of our total nitrite exposure. In other words, your spit contains far more nitrites than anything you could ever eat.

Yes, actually, that does surprise me. Whenever I have read about the dangers of nitrates, no one ever mentioned that our own bodies produce it.

And then he goes on to say:

When it comes to food, vegetables are the primary source of nitrites. On average, about 93% of nitrites we get from food come from vegetables. It may shock you to learn that one serving of arugula, two servings of butter lettuce, and four servings of celery or beets all have more nitrite than 467 hot dogs. (2) And your own saliva has more nitrites than all of them! So before you eliminate cured meats from your diet, you might want to address your celery intake. And try not to swallow so frequently.

Desire a nitrate-free diet? Looks like that's going to be pretty hard.

You should read the entire article, in which Chris points out that the study linking cancer to nitrates has been discredited and that nitrates may even have health benefits. At the end of the article, Chris asks whether he has changed our minds about eating bacon. As I was thinking about it, I have a couple of thoughts:

1. I, like Chris, eat as natural diet as I can, and that includes buying unrefined salt (and when I can find the time, doing the simple steps of curing my own bacon with it). Is the nitrate used in bacon an ingredient that is an unrefined, natural product? Chemistry is not a strong point for me, but I did find this article explaining three ways nitrates are made. I was surprised to find that nitrates are made out of a natural substance, at least some of the time. I guess I always assumed that it was a chemical manufactured when our food supply become industrialized.

In fact, a type of nitrate was once part of a farmer's collected tax in some countries where they created it from decaying organic matter. While I am not sure that what is used most often in our bacon today is as natural as this, I have to admit it was news to me that it was a natural substance.

2. I had begun to wonder whether adding celery into my smoothies and fresh juices was a good idea. After all, if celery is full of natural nitrates, isn't that bad for you? The article was helpful in relieving my fears about this.

3. Despite all of that, I still don't plan to buy typical bacon. The first reason is that although we don't enjoy bacon as often as we'd like, when we do it is a higher-quality product, made from pork that was raised humanely, and simply cured with salt and sugar. It's hard to put in words the difference, but it's a real one. It's more meaty, tastes more like pork, and just seems so much more like a real "food" item. Contrast that with typical bacon, which now to us seems fake. It is overly flavored with a weird texture. My daughter, who loves bacon, sometimes won't even eat it! There is this one type of bacon that some of my extended family likes, and it seriously tastes like it was bathed in chemicals. If that's all we knew, I am sure we would get used to it, but it's hard to stomach after eating the real thing. Plus, most bacon is factory produced, with all of the inherent problems, such as poorly raised animals and chemical treatments.

In the end, my bacon-eating habits are largely going to stay the same. I just won't feel guilty for buying that occasional package of organic bacon that was cured with celery juice now!