Sodium Nitrate; The Truth About 5 Staggering Health Risks

Sodium nitrate is a white crystalline solid. It is a widely used preservative in the meat industry, but it is not without its dangers. It not only gives meats their characteristic pink color and unique flavor, but it also plays a critical role in preventing the growth of harmful bacteria.

However, consuming excessive amounts of processed meats with high levels of sodium nitrate can be toxic to human health.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the dark side of sodium nitrate, its history, and how it is used to preserve meats. From the science behind the curing process to the health risks associated with consuming too much of it, we will explore the many dangers associated with this versatile ingredient.

We will also dive into the potential conflicts of interest in the regulations surrounding the use of sodium nitrate in food production and how to make informed choices when it comes to consuming cured meats (if that’s your thing).

Sodium Nitrate: A Brief History

Sodium nitrate was first discovered in the 16th century by the German alchemist Georg Bauer, also known as Georgius Agricola. He described it as a naturally occurring mineral called “Chile saltpeter” or “Peruvian saltpeter” because it was obtained from deposits in Chile and Peru. 1

This mineral was highly valued for its ability to preserve food and was used as a salt substitute for meat preservation. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists began to understand the chemistry behind the preservation properties of sodium nitrate. 2

During this time, it was discovered that sodium nitrate breaks down into nitrite over time. Its influence on the colour and flavour of cured meats is something that it is still known for to this date. It was also found to be a powerful antimicrobial agent, inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria which we will dig deeper into a little later. 3

So, while the mineral was known for centuries, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the chemical properties of sodium nitrate were discovered and understood.

But that’s not to say that curing meat is only a relatively recent thing. The use of salts to cure meats predates Roman history.

Where does Sodium Nitrate come from?

It is typically found in arid regions where high evaporation rates have concentrated mineral deposits. As mentioned earlier, Chile and Peru are high on that list, but so is California. It is typically formed from the accumulation of nitrates and other minerals in the soil and rock, over time.

Sodium nitrate can also be produced by chemical processes, mainly through the reaction of nitric acid with soda ash (sodium carbonate). This method is mainly used for commercial production. 4 5

sodium nitrate - factory

Historically, Chile and Peru were the main sources of natural sodium nitrate, and it was mined for use as a food preservative and as a source of nitrates for fertilisers and explosives. Today, however, most of the sodium nitrate used in industry and agriculture is produced synthetically.

What is the Difference Between Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite?

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are both chemical compounds that contain nitrogen and oxygen atoms. They are often used together in food preservation because they have different properties that work together to preserve meat and prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.

The main difference between the two is their chemical structure. Sodium nitrate has the chemical formula NaNO3, whereas sodium nitrite has the chemical formula NaNO2.

Sodium nitrate is a white crystalline powder that is mostly used as a preservative in processed meats such as bacon, ham, and sausages. When meat is preserved with sodium nitrate, it reacts with the meat’s enzymes and bacteria to form nitrite. Nitrite is responsible for giving cured meats their characteristic pink colour and flavour.

Sodium nitrite is also used as a preservative, it has certain antimicrobial properties which inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism. Therefore, it helps to prevent food-borne illnesses.

Outside of the associated health impacts where it is considered to be an irritant and harmful to the central nervous and cardiovascular systems, sodium nitrite can also be a dangerous substance when in contact with organic matter (particularly already combustible organic matter), and is considered to be a threat to the environment. 6

Did you know that sodium nitrite is naturally found in your saliva in higher concentrations than what is found in most cured meats?

Why Use One Instead of the Other?

Sodium nitrate, when used in the curing of meats, will eventually break down into nitrite over time. Nitrite is the active ingredient that gives cured meats their characteristic flavour and colour.

Sodium nitrite, on the other hand, is used in smaller amounts and is added directly to the meat to prevent the formation and growth of dangerous bacteria.

By adding Sodium nitrite to the meats early it allows for a more even spread and penetration, thus interacting with the blood cells in the meat more efficiently, therefore being able to act more quickly as an antimicrobial agent in inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria.

How Sodium Nitrate is Used Today

Sodium nitrate is used in a variety of industrial and commercial applications today. Some of the most common uses include:

  1. Food preservation
    • It is used as a preservative in processed and cured meats which helps to prevent the growth of bacteria. It also gives the meat a more marketable pink colour.
  2. Fertiliser
    • Nitrates are important plant nutrients, and sodium nitrate is a common fertiliser for crops such as corn, wheat, and barley.
  3. Pharmaceuticals
    • It is used in the production of certain medications, such as nitroglycerin, which is used to treat heart conditions.
  4. Pyrotechnics
    • It is used in the production of fireworks and other pyrotechnic devices.
  5. Glass manufacturing
    • It is used in the production of tempered glass.
  6. Metal processing
    • It is used as a flux in some metal processing applications.
  7. Water treatment
    • It is sometimes used to remove dissolved oxygen from water, which can be useful in preventing corrosion in industrial systems.

It is worth noting that sodium nitrate is also combined with other chemicals to create Nitrous oxide (N2O) which is used as an anesthetic gas in dentistry and surgery.

5 Sodium Nitrate Health Risks

As much as it plays a key part in many different parts of our lives, we still need to be mindful of the implications of high levels and/or frequency of exposure to sodium nitrate. Let’s consider some of the research behind the health risks.

Various Cancers

Research has drawn connections between the consumption of, and exposure to, unsafe amounts of sodium nitrate and instances of and potential for:

  • Ovarian
  • Stomach
  • Esophageal
  • Pancreatic, and
  • Thyroid cancers.

On the other hand, the Researchers who contributed to the Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition, 2003) said that neither sodium nitrate nor sodium nitrite themselves are carcinogenic, they do present concerns through their ability to react with (nitrosate) amines found in foods to form N-nitroso compounds. These compounds are what raise the red flag with concerns about various related cancers. 7

Research has shown that even though N-nitroso compounds are connected to carcinogenic outcomes, they can be neutralised by adding fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet (if you feel that you must have N-nitroso compounds in the first place). 8 9 10

This then brings me to Nitrosamines. These are chemicals that can form when nitrates and nitrites, like those found in sodium nitrate, react with certain substances in the body. 

Nitrosamines, referred to as ‘potent carcinogens’ in this study are likened to an uninvited house guest that simply won’t leave. The awareness of their cancer-causing properties has been known since the 1970s. According to this study, of more than three hundred Nitrosamines tested for carcinogenic potential, a whopping 90% of them came back positive! 11

Respiratory Problems

Inhaling high levels of nitrates can cause respiratory problems, such as

  • Difficulty breathing
    • High levels of nitrates can cause the airways to constrict, making it harder to breathe.
  • Coughing
    • Nitrates can irritate the airways, causing a persistent cough.
  • Chest pain
    • Inhaling nitrates can cause chest pain, particularly in individuals with pre-existing heart or lung conditions.
  • Shortness of breath
    • Nitrates can cause the airways to constrict and reduce the amount of oxygen reaching the lungs, leading to shortness of breath.
  • Wheezing
    • Nitrates can cause the airways to narrow, leading to a whistling sound when breathing.
  • Blue discoloration of the skin and nails
    • This can be a symptom of methemoglobinemia (more on that in the next section), a condition caused by high levels of nitrates in the blood.
  • Headache
    • High levels of nitrates can cause headaches in some people.
  • Fatigue
    • Nitrates can reduce the amount of oxygen reaching the body’s tissues, leading to fatigue and weakness.

Long-term exposure to high levels of nitrates may also increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer, such as lung cancer.

It’s important to note that the levels at which these effects occur are typically much higher than the levels found in food products, such as cured meats, where sodium nitrate is used as a preservative.

If you suspect that you have been exposed to high levels of nitrates and are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical attention right away. 12

Methemoglobinemia

Methemoglobinemia can result when sodium nitrate is converted to nitrite in the body, which can then oxidise the iron in hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen, to form methemoglobin.

When too much methemoglobin is present in the blood, it can’t effectively transport oxygen to the body’s tissues, leading to a condition called methemoglobinemia.

Symptoms can include:

  • Cyanosis (a bluish discolouration of the skin, lips, and nails due to a lack of oxygen)
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches, and
  • Shortness of breath.

In severe cases, it can be fatal. The majority of concern around this is connected to younger children and infants who are reportedly more susceptible to the condition. Typical sources of sodium nitrate in these cases are from water supplies that have not been quality controlled, such as unregulated wells. 13

sodium nitrate - unregulated

This is another reason why you need to make sure you have clean drinking water.

Heart Disease

Sodium nitrate has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease when consumed in high amounts. The exact mechanism by which it contributes to heart disease is not fully understood, but several theories have been proposed.

One theory is that high levels of nitrates and nitrites in the diet can lead to the formation of nitrosamines, which are known to be carcinogenic. Nitrosamines can also damage blood vessels, leading to the formation of plaque and ultimately heart disease.

Another theory is that nitrates and nitrites can dilate blood vessels, which can cause a drop in blood pressure, which can lead to an increased risk of heart disease. 14

Additionally, sodium nitrate intake has been associated with increased blood pressure which is a major risk factor for heart disease. 15

It’s important to note that most of the evidence linking sodium nitrate to heart disease is based on observational studies, and more research is needed to confirm these associations and understand the underlying mechanisms.

Leukemia

Sodium nitrate has been linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer, including leukemia. However, the exact mechanism by which it may contribute to the development of leukemia is also not fully understood.

One theory is that nitrates and nitrites in the diet can lead to the formation of nitrosamines, which are known to be carcinogenic. Nitrosamines can damage DNA, leading to mutations that can lead to the development of cancer. 16

Another theory is that nitrates and nitrites can interfere with the body’s ability to use vitamin C, which is important for the formation of collagen and the maintenance of healthy blood vessels. This is hypothesised to then result in the formation of abnormal cells identified as cancerous. 17

It’s important to note that the nitrate level in food is strictly regulated by the FDA and the daily intake of nitrate is way below the level that can cause harm.

That’s if you subscribe to the FDA really having your back. It’s your life and your choice, so if you decide to avoid sodium nitrate as a preservative in foods, you may be better off. Trust your gut. 18 19 20

Oh, and when it comes to ‘fact checkers’ it pays to consider who they are funded by too. Take a look at the funding statement in the closing section of this article. 21

On the topic of funding, here at Detox & Cure, we are self-funded. For the most part, our funding comes from the sale of products offered through our shop, some articles (not many) with affiliate links to congruent products, and driven by your encouragement. We aren’t funded by any big companies, and we don’t publish paid content. Anything that is a Guest Post here is published based on our seeing merit and value in it.

6 Tips to Make Informed Choices with Sodium Nitrate

When it comes to making informed choices about sodium nitrate, it’s important to consider the following:

  1. Understand the source
    • Sodium nitrate is commonly found in processed meats. If you are concerned about your intake of sodium nitrate, you may want to limit your consumption of these foods or choose nitrate-free options.
  2. Check the label
    • Look for sodium nitrate or nitrite on the ingredient list of packaged foods. If you see it, you may want to avoid that product or look for an alternative.
  3. Consider the daily intake
    • The FDA has established a daily limit of nitrite (from all sources) at 3.06 grams per day. It’s recommended to check the daily intake of nitrate and nitrite in your diet and compare it with the recommended daily intake. I refer to my previous statement about you knowing in your gut what is best for you.
  4. Consult with a healthcare professional
    • If you have any concerns about your intake of sodium nitrate or your risk of heart disease or cancer, it’s always a good idea to speak with a trusted healthcare professional. They can help you make informed decisions about your diet and health.
  5. Eat a Balanced Diet
    • Eating a balanced diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats can help reduce your risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer, regardless of nitrate intake.
  6. Download the Yuka app
    • This is great for scanning barcodes and checking what the ingredients are including their potential health implications. Note: we receive no funding from Yuka, we just love their app!

Overall, it’s important to be mindful of your intake of sodium nitrate, but also to consider it in the context of your overall diet and health.

FAQs

Is Sodium Nitrate Harmful to Humans?

Sodium nitrate is generally considered to be safe for consumption in small amounts, as it is commonly used as a food preservative and color fixative.

However, consuming excessive amounts of sodium nitrate can lead to adverse health effects, such as methemoglobinemia (a condition in which the amount of oxygen carried by the blood is reduced) and cancer.

Long-term exposure to high levels of sodium nitrate in the workplace may also cause respiratory problems. It’s important to follow recommended guidelines for consumption and to be aware of its presence in food products.

Is Sodium Nitrate Safe to Eat?

Yes, it is generally considered safe to eat in small amounts. It is commonly used as a food preservative and color fixative in processed meats, such as bacon, ham, and sausages. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set limits for the amount of sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite that can be added to these products.

However, it’s important to note that excessive consumption has been linked to certain health problems. Some studies have suggested that eating high levels of processed meats preserved with sodium nitrate and nitrite may increase the risk of certain types of cancer, such as colon cancer.

It is also important to note that in certain people with a rare genetic disorder called methemoglobinemia, consuming high levels of nitrates can cause their blood to carry less oxygen and can be fatal.

Therefore, it is important to follow the recommended guidelines for consumption and to be aware of the presence of sodium nitrate in food products. You should also keep in mind that excessive consumption of processed meats can also increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, and other chronic diseases, regardless of sodium nitrate or nitrite content.

How Lethal is Sodium Nitrite?

In high quantities, sodium nitrite can be toxic and potentially lethal. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) for sodium nitrite is set by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) at 0-63 mg/kg body weight per day. This means that for an adult with a body weight of around 70 kg, the safe limit would be around 4.5 grams of sodium nitrite per day.

Consuming large amounts of sodium nitrite can lead to complications and conditions where the blood’s ability to carry oxygen is reduced. This can cause symptoms such as headache, shortness of breath, and in extreme cases, loss of consciousness and death.

It is important to note that the ADI is based on long-term exposure and the risk of a one-time high-dose exposure is difficult to quantify. It is also important to note that the risk of high exposure from food sources is considered low, as the amount of sodium nitrite used in food processing is strictly regulated by the government to ensure safety for consumption.

What Happens if You Drink Sodium Nitrate?

The consumption of sodium nitrate is not safe as a drink in a solution form or pure. Ingesting high doses of sodium nitrate can cause a number of health problems.

It can be toxic to the body and can cause serious symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headaches, and even death in extreme cases.

What is NaNO3 in Chemistry?

NaNO3 is the chemical formula for sodium nitrate, a white crystalline solid that is highly soluble in water. It is composed of one sodium (Na+) ion and one nitrate (NO3-) ion. Sodium nitrate is a strong oxidising agent and it can be easily reduced to nitrite (NO2-), which can be further reduced to nitrogen gas (N2). 22

The chemical formula for sodium nitrate is NaNO2. 23

Where has Sodium Nitrate in foods been banned?

Sodium nitrate has not been “banned” in foods globally, but some countries and organisations have restricted its use.

For example, the European Union has banned the use of sodium nitrate in meat products intended for sale to consumers, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite not be used in food products. 24 25

However, it is still used in the US and other countries as a food preservative and color fixative in meat products.

Conclusion

Sodium nitrate is in a lot of foods consumed widely today. It may be wise to limit your exposure if you have concerns about what effect it may have on your health.

Ultimately, it’s not like an essential vitamin or mineral your body needs, so you’re unlikely to be at a loss if you do decide to cut back, or cut it out completely. Your choice.

Avoiding chemical preservatives can be challenging. With the right resources and understanding, you can place yourself on the best side of being able to choose from a place of empowerment and understanding.

What are your thoughts about some of the chemicals used in foods? Join the conversation. Share your thoughts on sodium nitrate with us on Instagram and Pinterest.

References

  1. “Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer)” – R. W. Cahn, 20 July 1998 [Encyclopedia Britannica] [Archive] ↩︎
  2. “Therapeutic Uses of Inorganic Nitrite and Nitrate: From Past to Future” – A. R. Butler, M. Feelisch, 22 April 2008 [AHA Journals] [Archive] ↩︎
  3. “Sodium Nitrate (NaNO3)” – BYJU’S Staff, Last Checked 20 January 2023 [BYJU’S] [Archive] ↩︎
  4. “Production of sodium nitrate” – 陈鹏吴新国, 29 July 1987 (Withdrawn) [Google Patents] [Archive] ↩︎
  5. “How to Make Sodium Nitrate” – A. Robinson, 23 April 2009 [Sciencing] [Archive] ↩︎
  6. “Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition – Sodium Nitrite” pp 269 – B. Caballero, L. C. Trugo, P. M. Finglas, P. Belton, P. B. Ottaway, et al., Second Edition, 25 February 2003 [Academic Press] ↩︎
  7. “Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition – Nitrate and Nitrite” pp 803 – B. Caballero, L. C. Trugo, P. M. Finglas, P. Belton, P. B. Ottaway, et al., Second Edition, 25 February 2003 [Academic Press] ↩︎
  8. “Mechanisms of action of N-nitroso compounds” – M. C. Archer, 1989 [PubMed] [Archive] ↩︎
  9. “N-nitroso Compounds” – DHSS Staff, Last Revised January 2015 [Delaware Health and Social Services] [Archive] ↩︎
  10. “Blocking the endogenous formation of N-nitroso compounds and related carcinogens” – H. Bartsch, N. Frank, 1996 [PubMed] [Archive] ↩︎
  11. “Nitrosamine and N-Nitroso Compound Chemistry and Biochemistry Advances and Perspectives” – R. N. Loeppky, 1994 [ACS] [Archive] ↩︎
  12. “Sodium Nitrate, ACS – Safety Data Sheet” – LabChem Staff, 2 February 2021 [LabChem] [Archive] ↩︎
  13. “Methemoglobinemia: Infants at risk” – S. F. Johnson, 5 April 2019 [ScienceDirect] [Archive] ↩︎
  14. “Dietary Nitrate and the Epidemiology of Cardiovascular Disease: Report From a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Workshop” – A. Ahluwalia, M. Gladwin, G. D. Coleman, N. Hord, G. Howard, D. B. Kim‐Shapiro, M. Lajous, F. J. Larsen, D. J. Lefer, L. A. McClure, B. T. Nolan, R. Pluta, A. Schechter, C. Y. Wang, M. H. Ward, J. L. Harman, July 2016 [PubMed] [Archive] ↩︎
  15. “Nitrites, Nitrates, and Cardiovascular Outcomes: Are We Living “La Vie en Rose” With Pink Processed Meats?” – B. Srour, E. Chazelas, L. K. Fezeu, G. Javaux ↩︎
  16. “Dietary Nitrates, Nitrites, and Nitrosamines Intake and the Risk of Gastric Cancer: A Meta-Analysis” – P. Song, L. Wu, W. Guan, 1 December 2015 [PubMed] [Archive] ↩︎
  17. “Immune Modulatory Properties of Collagen in Cancer” – A. M. A. Rømer, M. L. Thorseth, D. H. Madsen, 8 December 2021 [Frontiers in Immunology] [Archive] ↩︎
  18. “F.D.A.’s Drug Industry Fees Fuel Concerns Over Influence” – C. Jewett, 15 September 2022 [New York Times] [Archive] ↩︎
  19. “Why is the FDA funded in part by the companies it regulates?” – C. M White, 13 May 2021 [The Conversation] [Archive] [UConn] [Archive] ↩︎
  20. “Why is the FDA Funded in Part by the Companies It Regulates?” – J. LaMattina, 22 September 2022 [Forbes] [Archive] ↩︎
  21. “Fact check: Some, but not all, of FDA’s funding comes from the companies whose products it approves” – M. Fauzia, 27 August 2021 [USA Today] [Archive] ↩︎
  22. “Sodium Nitrate” – PubChem Staff, 8 August 2005 [PubChem] [Archive] ↩︎
  23. “Sodium Nitrite” – PubChem Staff, 2 May 2008 [PubChem] [Archive] ↩︎
  24. “Commission proposes revised rules on food additives reducing nitrates and nitrites levels” – PubChem Staff, 11 October 2004 [EC Europa] [Archive] ↩︎
  25. “Thirteenth Meeting of the Who Action Network on Salt Reduction in the Population in the European Region (Esan) Meeting Report” – PubChem Staff, 2 September 2021 (PDF Download Links) [WHO] [Archive] ↩︎

Last Updated on 4 months by D&C Editorial Team

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About the Author

Matthew has been on an active journey towards living a healthy life from a young age. Influenced by his Grandmother, a practicing Naturopath who served her community from the 1940's to the 1980's, his views on living holistically were shaped from a young age. Growing up in different parts of Australia, his connection with the Ocean and a passion for sustainability comes through in everything he does and shares.

"I'm not a Doctor, and I don't play one on the Internet." - me

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