Education is key when it comes to healthy eating. It's important to know what, exactly, you're putting in your body when you eat various foods, as well as the benefits—and risks—associated with them.
Perhaps no other area of nutrition requires more research than the pros and cons regarding various food additives. Not only can the various additives we read on food labels be hard to pronounce, but we often have no idea why they're used or what effects they can have on our bodies. As a result, many of us quickly skim food labels—or ignore them completely—and select items from grocery store shelves based on other reasons like nutrition claims made on the packaging, taste, price, or convenience.
One food additive that most of us have probably at least heard of is sodium nitrite. Unlike other additives which pose obvious health risks, however, the facts on sodium nitrite are a bit more fuzzy. As just one example, a recent article on Prevention.com wonders if nitrites are actually good for you, with research suggesting it may have benefits. The article then says the "bottom line" is that other research suggests it's a carcinogen. Confused yet?
While sodium nitrite is naturally present in a considerable amount of fruits and vegetables, it is also used as a preservative in packaged foods like deli meats, bacon, hot dogs, and fish. It is the use of sodium nitrite in these items that can pose a risk to your health.
While sodium nitrite is added to processed meats to add color and fight bacteria, if consumed in large amounts, it can damage your body's cells and contribute to various health issues, including:
- Potentially fatal respiratory problems
- Gastrointestinal and brain cancer
- Increased risk of Childhood Type 1 diabetes
- Digestive system irritation
- Damage to blood and blood vessels
- Rapid heart rate
Addition by (additive) subtraction
The key to protecting yourself against the dangers posed by sodium nitrite is to consume it in moderation or, better yet, not at all. FDA guidelines permit a max amount of 2.75 ounces of nitrates to be added to 100 pounds of chopped meat. Unfortunately, there is no specific amount that they have determined is safe to eat.
Here are some tips to help you avoid it:
Cut back (or eliminate) your consumption of processed meats such cold cuts, hot dogs, sausage, and bacon. Shop your local meat market or deli counter for healthier alternatives.
- Eat organic food, which does not contain preservatives like nitrites.
- Carefully read packaging and food labels. Look for “nitrite-free” on the packaging, and avoid products that list sodium or potassium nitrite (or nitrate) among their list of ingredients. Packaged meats aren't the only foods to contain sodium nitrites, either. Also be sure to check packaged seafood, as well as cans of beans or vegetables with bacon. Be especially careful to look for it on products labeled as "natural" and don't assume they are automatically nitrite-free.
- Eat a diet high in antioxidants, like Vitamin C and other vitamins, which can stem the process that turns nitrates into disease-causing nitrosamines.
So, should you throw out all your bacon? Probably not, but swapping some of the sodium nitrite and other food additives in your diet for natural ingredients seems wise. Thankfully, there are countless (and still delicious) nitrite-free options available. Check out DietDirect's extensive (and growing) selection of organic foods over in the store.