Do You Know Nutrition: Nitrates and nitrites: Know the difference

By Phylis Canion
April 22, 2014 at midnight
Updated April 21, 2014 at 11:22 p.m.

Can you please explain the difference between nitrates and nitrites? I see them listed on some meats and other products and wonder if this is something I should avoid. If one has too much in their system, what are the symptoms?

Nitrites and nitrates are both common preservatives used frequently in food. For the scientific reader, the only difference is one oxygen atom.

Sodium nitrite has two oxygen atoms and one nitrogen atom. Sodium nitrate has one more oxygen atom.

A simple explanation: A nitrate is a salt of nitric acid, and a nitrite is either a salt or an ester of nitrous acid. Sodium nitrate is used primarily as an ingredient in fertilizers. However, applications also include pyrotechnics, food preservatives (because of its antimicrobial properties), rocket propellant and glass and pottery enamels.

Sodium nitrate is commonly called saltpeter and is one of the main ingredients in gunpowder and explosives. Sodium nitrite is used primarily in food manufacturing as an additive to prevent the formation of botulism.

The use of sodium nitrite is regulated in the food industry because of its possible carcinogenic properties. While the additive will prevent the growth of bacteria, sodium nitrite, when sold as a food additive, is dyed pink to avoid mistaking it for something else, hence its nickname, pink salt.

Excessive nitrates and nitrites presence in the human body is harmful. What happens in the human body is that nitrates are converted to nitrites by bacteria in the digestive tract. The nitrites then react with certain food proteins to produce compounds that can be carcinogenic.

The American Medical Association has found that the concentrations of nitrites in normal quantities of preserved meats are not sufficient to cause cancer. However, the association also reported that nitrites lead to the formation of modified hemoglobin proteins, in which hemoglobin is the structure in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the tissues.

When nitrites modify hemoglobin, the result is cellular oxygen deficiencies. Oxygen deficiency is the cause of most diseases.

Symptoms of oxygen deficiency include stomach acid; bacterial, viral and parasitic infections; bronchial issues; circulations problems; dizziness; fatigue; irrational behavior; lowered immunity to colds, flu and infections; memory loss; muscle aches; overall body weakness and poor digestion. Thank you for reading food labels.

Thought for the week: We all want what we don't have, but maybe all we have is all we need.

Phylis B. Canion is a doctor of naturopathic medicine and is a certified nutritional consultant, email her at This column is for nutritional information only and is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure.



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