I remember when this used to be an actual public issue, the famous dangerous ”Es” yet it seems everyone has forgotten about them and we no longer worry about their cheeky appearance in everyday food products. I thought this article will help some of my audience, meat eaters, keto followers to stop for a moment, take a step back and get back into reading their packaging of their favourite meat products – that delicious Spanish jamón serrano, Italian prosciutto, cured meat, sausage, bacon or just any sort of charcuterie meat we’re used to be eating.

You will be surprised how often you get to see E250 added to all sorts of products, ready-packed meat, anything with smokey flavour, store-bought BBQ marinades, ready-made pulled-pork, and the list goes on, but mostly M E A T products.

What is sodium nitrite and what’s the difference between them and naturally occurring nitrates?

Sodium nitrites are often added to what we call ”processed foods”. Many meats in the market, especially those you buy on the shelves (so that require a preservative for a longer shelf life) and not at the butcher, will have E250, a food additive under the name of ”sodium nitrite” added.

The idea with sodium nitrite is to protect the meat from the growth of harmful bacteria on the meat. Sometimes, it’s also added for enhancing a red colour on the meat, or adding a smoky and salty taste.

One of the main ingredient of sodium nitrite is nitrite – chemically made of one atom of nitrogen and two atoms of oxygen (NO2). Consuming foods high in nitrites, these will turn into nitric oxide, which has been seen as a key player in health and disease – studies have seen that both excess and deficiencies in this key component can result in an array of health issues.

Nitrosamine happens when nitrites meet amino acids and/or are exposed to high heat (when cooking these meats/products, f.e.), which is why nitrite-rich processed meats are more likely to be considered as disease-causing foods.

Reason why it is of GREAT IMPORTANCE, especially if you are a meat lover, carnivore, on a ketogenic diet or simply consuming meat very often, to limit or eliminate meats or foods containing nitrites to avoid the risks of chronic disease, inflammations and promote health optimisation.

Nitrates, on the other hand, is a chemical compound consisting of one nitrogen and 3 atoms of oxygen. Mostly they are found and consumed from vegetable sources, while fruit and processed meat contain nitrites. You can read more here.

The human body is also able to produce nitrates, especially excreted in saliva (where the concentration of nitrates is 10 to 20% higher than in blood – to consider when you have it tested).

Nitrates in food can either turn into nitric oxide or nitrites. While nitric oxide is positively related to good health impacts, a topic studied and looked at quite often, you can read here a study on how it affected hypertension, we also find studies from 2013 supplementation with nitric oxide in athletes engaged in team sports, improving exercise performance.

Some of the nitrates in food will convert into nitrites, however, this latter ones are rather taken and shall be avoided when coming from food additives as they convert into nitrosamines and potentially increase the risk of chronic disease, cancers and immunodeficient issues.

Consumption of foods containing nitrites as additives, can have the following negative effects:

  1. Cancer causing effects: As mentioned above, this happens in the presence of amino-acids or/and heat upon cooking these foods. For many years now there have been studies linking processed meats (meats with additives) to cancer. Unfortunately, due to this, meat consumption altogether has been linked to unreasonable amount of diseases without an actual cleaning of the message: processed foods and meats are the issue, not clean, butchered meat. The issue lays in adding lab-made chemicals to food and consuming these – not an actual steak, freshly cut from your local butcher.

    Yes, high nitrosamines have been associated with stomach cancer in a fairly large review containing 61 different studies. Plenty other studies, meta-analyses, reviews and cohort studies have been observing the relation between sodium nitrite and cancer – concluding that higher intake of processed meats were indeed related to higher risk of colorectal, breast and bladder cancers.

    ”Red and Processed Meat and Colorectal Cancer Incidence: Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies”

    ”Red and processed meat consumption and breast cancer: UK Biobank cohort study and meta-analysis”

    ”Red and processed meat consumption and risk of bladder cancer: a dose-response meta-analysis of epidemiological studies”

  2. Higher risks of diabetes Type 1: A lack of insulin production will cause higher blood sugar, which leads to symptoms of diabetes (thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, weight loss, etc). Type 1 and 2 of diabetes are different – Type 2 can happen at any age and can be the result of a combination of poor lifestyle conditions and genetical misfortune.

    Type 1 diabetes happens differently – it happens when the body’s immune system starts attacking the insulin-producing pancreatic cells and usually diagnosed in younger population starting in adolescence.

    Already some time ago nitrites were found to increase the risk of Type 1 diabetes especially in children, water with high content of nitrites was also linked to increased risk of Type 1 diabetes in both studies in USA and UK.
  3. Stops correct oxygen transportation in the blood: Methemoglobinemia is a condition where there presence of methemoglobin in the blood (a different compound than actual the usual form of iron), makes it hard to deliver oxygen to the cells and tissues – bluish skin, frequent headaches, fatigue and developmental delays (in small children, babies, toddlers), are some of the symptoms.

    There has been an increasing amount of research relating the high content of nitrites in drinkable tap water or added to meat and foods with methemoglobinemia, ever since the 1950s (see old study here). The study related to contaminated water can be found here and other here.

    For this reason, some scientists have even recommended to limit the intake of store-bought baby food.
  4. Affects brain health: It seems that sodium nitrite was also found to be linked to increased risk of late-on set of Alzheimer’s. An animal study found that nitrosamine (component that forms upon cooking meats or foods in heat or in presence of amino acids) exposure caused impaired motor function, learning, neurodegeneration, and an increase in the levels of certain proteins in the brain that build up and form plaque, contributing to Alzheimer’s.

    Many other studies (check here from 2011 and here from 2013) have linked the consumption of processed meats (so meats you buy from the store, packed instead of fresh meat from the butcher) with neurological issues, such as Alzheimer’s and other cognitive deficits.

What foods you should check for added sodium nitrite?

  • Ham
  • Hot dogs
  • Sausages
  • Salami or similar meats
  • Bacon
  • Corned beef
  • Bologna
  • Mortadella
  • Beef jerky
  • Biltong
  • Cold meats
  • Spanish and Italian salted or cured meats
  • Smoked meat
  • Pickled herring
  • Falukorv (a special type of sausage here in Sweden)
  • Julpresssylta (also a typical Swedish headcheese consumed for Christmas)
  • Blodpudding (blood sausages)

EU does not not look after your health, instead they want the countries that limit sodium nitrates to be careful about limiting it, as this can become a ”barrier to trade” with other countries products. Find response and reasoning to Denmark upon requesting a lower food additive level, specifically of sodium nitrite.

Find here the European Commission Decision in 2021 regarding the fact that Denmark willed at lowering food additives. The petition was approved but, it’s mind-blowing that there are not overall requests of lowering sodium nitrite or just stop using it whatsoever taking the clear health risks.

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