Have you ever wondered what nitrates are and what foods contain nitrates? Are nitrates linked to any health concerns? If you have questions about nitrates and why they’re used in food processing, read on to learn more.
What are nitrates?
Nitrates (or nitrites) are natural chemicals that are found in the soil, air and water. Nitrates are also used as a food additive to stop the growth of bacteria and to enhance the flavour and colour of foods.
Where are nitrates found?
Nitrates are naturally found in vegetables such as:
- Radishes and
These foods provide the most nitrates in our diets. However, there is no recommendation to limit vegetables that naturally contain nitrates.
Smaller amounts are found in:
- Dairy products like cheese
- Poultry and
Nitrates are added to these foods to make their appearance and flavour more appealing.
What about nitrates and processed meat?
Nitrates are added to processed meat like:
- Deli meat/cold cuts
- Hot dogs/Wieners
This is done to preserve the product and prevent bacteria from growing. Nitrates also give processed meats their pink colour.
Should I limit processed meat?
Yes. There is strong research that shows a diet high in processed meats increases the risk of colon cancer. However, it is not yet clear if this is because of the nitrates or other compounds in processed meat. To decrease your risk of colon cancer, it is a good idea to eat very little, if any, processed meats.
For information on foods to avoid when pregnant, read our article on food safety during pregnancy.
What about processed meat labelled “natural” or “no nitrates added”?
Foods labelled “natural” or “no nitrates added” may still contain nitrates/nitrites due to the use of celery powder/juice and other ingredients used as a substitute. It is best to treat these foods the same as other processed meats and limit how often you eat them.
Tips on making nitrate-free food choices
Stuck on lunch ideas? Try these tasty and nutritious lunch options:
- Limit foods with ingredients like potassium nitrate or sodium nitrate.
- Limit foods with the words ‘cured’ or ‘smoked’ on the ingredient list. This means that the food may contain nitrates.
- Eat little, if any, processed meat. It is okay to have a cooked ham during the holidays or an occasional hot dog in the summer.
- Skip the bacon and sausage for breakfast and try fresh fruit or grilled vegetables with your eggs. Give this hearty Shakshouka a try for your next breakfast.
- Stuck on lunch ideas? Think beyond the sandwich! Try a vegetable wrap with hummus instead of a deli sandwich.
- Eat plant-based more often. You might be surprised at how tasty it can be! Learn more about plant-based proteins for you and your family.
- Throwing a party? Avoid party sandwiches that use processed meats and instead try a variety of fresh salads with an assortment of flat breads and dips
● Chickpea and Vegetable Salad
● Jazzed Up Tuna Salad
● Soy Butter and Banana Roll
● Cheesy Chicken Crunchie Quesadilla
● Chicken Tzatziki Tortilla Roll Ups
● Easy Red Lentil Dhal
How can a dietitian help?
A dietitian can help you make changes to your diet that help prevent cancer and other chronic diseases, like diabetes. Dietitians consider your goals, history, culture and preferences to make personalized recommendations. Dietitians can also work with you to increase your food skills in the kitchen and at the grocery store, like how to read labels. Connect with a dietitian today!
Nitrates are naturally found in some vegetables, dairy products and meat. There is no recommendation to limit foods that naturally contain nitrates. Nitrates are also added to processed meats as a preservative. There is strong research that shows a diet high in processed meats increases the risk of colon cancer. However, it is not yet clear if this is because of the nitrates or other compounds in processed meat. To decrease your risk of colon cancer, it is a good idea to eat very little, if any, processed meats.
If you are looking for information about nitrates in water, check with your local public health agency.
You may also be interested in
Lowering Your Risk for Colorectal (Colon) Cancer
Facts on Food Additives
What You Need to Know About Preservatives
Top 5 Reasons to See a Dietitian
This article was written and reviewed by dietitians from Dietitians of Canada. The advice in this article is intended as general information and should not replace advice given by your dietitian or healthcare provider.
Last Update – May 9, 2022