Sodium Nitrites – Friend or Foe? A Closer Look at Lunch Meats and Cold Cuts

When I first met my husband, I was at one of the heaviest weights I’d ever been at. My husband (at the time, he was just my boyfriend!) introduced me to the South Beach Diet, and I gave it a go.
With no working out routine, no gym membership, no rationing of food (I love to overeat!), and plenty of “cheat days”, I STILL lost 50 pounds in just 8 months and got back down to my teen weight! In hindsight, I believe it was cutting out processed foods and sugars that did it.
Now, years later, with a better grasp of REAL food and how it works in our bodies, I am realizing that the important concept is not to stick with “Phase 1 to 3” meal plans, but to focus on real, whole and minimally processed foods.
So here I am, less than a week to my due date with Baby #2, and I’m already scheming and dreaming about losing all of the baby weight that I, er, never lost after Baby #1. I’m evaluating my diet and habits when I lost weight the first time, and I’ve decided that there are two major changes I’d like to make this time around:
1) I’d like to incorporate a workout routine into my daily habits, and not just rely on diet alone for weight loss and fitness
2) I’d like to cut out some unhealthy habits that were within “South Beach Diet” guidelines, but are not exactly healthy habits – like guzzling Diet Coke and Sugar Free Pink Lemonades (chock full of aspartame) and eating foods that are processed to heck and chemically laden (GMOs, added sodium, artificial coloring, etc.)
The second goal is what brings me to this whole sodium nitrite post. One of my lunch staples with my first round of weight loss was a lunch meat and cheese wrap. In fact, I ate this combo 4-5 times a week.
So now I’m taking a moment to look a little closer at the controversy of lunch meat and cold cuts – Basically, what I want to know is: Is sodium nitrite safe to consume in a “real foods” (whole and minimally processed foods) diet?

What is Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite?

 – Sodium nitrate is a type of salt, naturally found in Chile and Peru. It can also be created in a lab.
– Sodium nitrite is also a type of salt, but is not found naturally and is created in a lab or as a byproduct of two other chemical reactions (i.e. when sodium nitrate is added to food and reacts with existing chemicals).

Why are Nitrates and Nitrites Added to Lunch Meats?

The original purpose of using nitrates and nitrites stems from the early 1900s when each of these salts were used to standardize curing – both in the amount needed to cure and in achieving the desired results.
In addition to preventing the growth of harmful microorganisms in curing meats, sodium nitrite (the artificial salt) was also found to help preserve the color of meat and even prevent the meat from going rancid over longer periods of time.

The Health Concerns with Added Nitrites

Multiple studies have shown that when excessive levels of nitrites are consumed, they can cause problems, (especially for kids who pound for pound take in more than adults do). Nitrite exposure has also been known to cause pregnancy complications and infant health problems. Nitrites have been linked to diseases like:
– Leukemia
– Non-Hodgkin lymphoma
– Ovarian cancer
– Colon cancer
– Stomach cancer
– Esophageal cancer
– Pancreatic cancer
– Thyroid cancer
Furthermore, if nitrites are exposed to high heat during cooking, they can convert to nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.

Where the “Are Nitrites Bad” Waters Get Murky…

So it kind of seems like a no-brainer. As a general rule, health minded foodies have learned that it’s best to avoid man-made / manufactured advents in “food science”, and it appears that nitrites fall into that category.
But here’s where it gets tricky! Sodium nitrite occurs naturally in most of the vegetables we consume. Keep in mind, when used in commercial lunch meats and cold cuts, it’s artificial and man-made. But it’s not exactly a foreign substance.
The fact is, our bodies produce sodium nitrite in the digestive process. In a typical person’s diet, 80 percent of nitrite comes from vegetables such as spinach, radishes and lettuce, and another 13 percent comes from swallowed saliva!
So the argument runs: If sodium nitrite is such a natural substance – both in veggies and in our own bodies! – then any health risks are clearly overblown or unworthy of our concern.

The Difference Between Natural Sodium Nitrite and Man-Made Sodium Nitrite

The big difference between natural and man-made sodium nitrite?
– Vegetables that contain sodium nitrite are chock full of vitamins and minerals that inhibit the production of nitrosamines, the carcinogenic chemical that sodium nitrite creates that is believed to be cancer causing and illness inducing.
– Man-made sodium nitrite, as an isolated compound, does not have the necessary vitamins and minerals to protect gut flora from becoming a cancer breeding ground.
So, it should be case closed, right?! Nitrites in lunch meat are bad bad bad! Well, not so fast…

Why Some (Like the USDA) Argue that Man-Made Sodium Nitrite Is Still Safe…

Ever since the “Sodium Nitrites Cause Cancer” controversy started, the USDA has mandated that all meats that contain nitrates or nitrites (for curing or preserving) also contain ascorbic acid, a form of Vitamin C.  Some manufacturers play it extra safe and add alpha-tocopherol (a form of Vitamin E and an antioxidant).  Both of these inhibit the formation of nitrosamines.
If all goes well in the body, artificially added nitrites in the diet transforms in the gut into nitric oxide, which serves a variety of important functions in the body, in the same way that natural nitrites in celery and spinach do.

So What is the Final Verdict on Nitrites?!?!

Are you thoroughly confused yet?! So what is the final verdict?! Are man-made nitrites something to avoid or no??!
In making the personal decision regarding nitrites in your diet, keep in mind that there IS a difference between eating artificial nitrites added to foods as preservatives and consuming them in their natural form via produce.
– Nitrates and nitrites that occur naturally are found alongside compounds that have been carefully crafted by nature and natures God to inhibit their conversion into nitrosamines in the body. This means that there is ZERO risk in eating nitrites in their vegetable forms. NONE.
– When we eat nitrates and nitrites in foods artificially treated with them, we may not be getting the complementary nutrients and their preventative effects, even when the USDA assures us that their lab-crafted additives are sufficient. There’s just no guarantee beyond the word of an organization that also pushes GMOs, chemicals, and other known neurotoxins on the populace in the form of “acceptable foods”.
In my opinion, while eating lunch meats and cold cuts with added nitrites isn’t as dire a health problem as I initially feared, it’s still something to keep in mind with a natural whole food diet.

How I Plan to Approach Sodium Nitrite in my Diet

While I won’t beat myself up for eating a sodium nitrite drenched piece of lunch meat, I also don’t intend to make it a diet staple, or bring it into my home as I did with my first weight loss venture. These are the healthy steps I plan to take to protect myself and my family from any potential harmful effects of sodium nitrite:
  1. Minimize (and for the most part eliminate) consumption of processed foods and cured meat products like hot dogs, sausage, and cold cuts.
  2. When possible, buy “uncured” or nitrate-free brands. These products typically contain nitrates obtained from ingredients like celery juice, which means they are naturally sourced with all the complementary elements and vitamins and minerals for gut health, and not cooked up in a science lab.
  3. Use healthy, lean cuts of meat, (like roasted and sautéed chicken and turkey breast), when putting together sandwiches and lunch wraps.
  4. Eat organic foods. They’re not grown with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, which can boost a crop’s sodium nitrate content significantly.
  5. Eat a diet high in antioxidants. Certain vitamins, like vitamin C, can reduce the conversion of nitrates.

So! What is your take on sodium nitrite in lunch meats? Friend or foe? Have you ever given it much thought? Share below!