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!

Gingi Freeman

Gingi is a photographer, cosplayer, amateur chef, crazy cat lady, anime otaku, bookworm, generic geek, world traveler, conservative Christian, homeschooler, devoted military wife and stay at home new mother of two little girls. Gingi blogs about anything and everything that is relevant to being a supermom, stay at home wife, homeschooler and geek girl! You can contact her at or via the contact form on her website at

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

  • 9 March, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    I say NO! Even when I ate meat I stayed away from processed meat. I truly think that eating whole, fresh foods is healthier, will help you lose weight, and will make you feel better. If you’re going to eat processed foods then do it in moderation, or better yet, minimally. I’m also happy that you’re not going to drink diet drinks. There’s nothing good for us in soda, especially diet soda. Good post my friend! 🙂

    • 9 March, 2015 at 7:33 pm

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m over lunch meats.. it’s gonna be a CHALLENGE to give up though!!! You’ll have to hold me accountable, yeah?! ^_^

  • 9 March, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    wow, this is so informative! i sort of gave up lunch meats when i was pregnant with my first. i eat them here and there but think i have to be more careful now. 😛
    love, liz

  • 9 March, 2015 at 9:40 pm

    I have to admit I have never really had it spelled out like this before and this was really helpful! I have heard they were bad, but didn’t really understand. My kids hate any processed meats and so it’s generally nixed from our diet. Luckily, they love fruits, veggies and all of that so the Mama can find things to feed us that we all agree on!

    • 9 March, 2015 at 10:30 pm

      WOW, you are a lucky momma to have kids who prefer fruits and veggies!! So far my little Tessa is NOT a picky eater (knock on wood), but I hear the momma woes all the time about kids preferring junk food to real food.. looks like you are doing something right!! ^_^

  • 9 March, 2015 at 11:13 pm

    Your article is really interesting and comprehensive!! I’ve read so much about the theme in past years, things sounding reasonable, others contradictive ….. so after reading here I should say I agree with you, and try to eat as much organic produce as possible, but eventually I can’t resist a slice of salami (while pregnant and breast feeding I didn’t, really ate no processed food and after giving birth was slimmer tun ever for these healthy habits – but it’s a long time ago…….)
    Don’t exaggerate with your diet anyway, you’ll need all your strength in the coming months :))
    Hope to hear some lovely news soon!!!


    • 10 March, 2015 at 1:21 am

      Yeah, I’m not going to beat myself up over lunch meat now and then.. as long as the bulk of my diet is healthy and whole, I’m going to consider it a success! But knowing the science behind food and how it works in our bodies is a GREAT motivator for healthier eating!!

  • 10 March, 2015 at 1:09 am

    Gingi… the way I lost my weight was eating whole foods and walking a lot… I do need to do some strength training but basically I gave up any packaged food or not whole foods.. I have allowed some back into my diet and I am changing that again… I just feel better eating all whole foods so… back to what worked and please let the Spring get here so I can walk again… 🙂

    I signed up for the books, I just have to find a little time to get one and than write a post… I have been saying I want to read again, this is my answer … thanks 🙂

    • 10 March, 2015 at 1:20 am

      Yay!!! I am so glad the book review program is something you found useful!! I can’t wait to read your reviews! With your insight, I would LOVE to see your thoughts on the books for review!

      And YES, I am right there with you.. I always feel my best eating whole foods too! Let’s hold each other accountable this spring, yeah?! *hugs and much love*

  • 10 March, 2015 at 1:34 am

    Very interesting! It really makes you think about what you’re eating.

    • 10 March, 2015 at 3:17 pm

      Hear, hear!! <3

  • 10 March, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    This is great info, lady. Stuff like this can be really confusing- one study says something is totally bad + cancer-causing, another says it’s harmless. Moderation is definitely key, and choosing whole/natural foods over processed (most times) is best. 🙂

    Le Stylo Rouge

    • 10 March, 2015 at 3:19 pm

      Yeah, with topics of this nature, I always end up wading through pages and pages of studies and pro and con type articles. It’s hard to find some good side by side outlines that just spell the issue out! lol!

  • 10 March, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Stuff like this freaks me out so badly. I try to eat as much stuff that is natural but I know I have some bad habits as well. Great post- lots of good info here.

  • 10 March, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    I really like this post! I try my best to stay away from additives and purchase as much organic as I can. Great goals and great info you have!



    My Closet Life Blog

  • 10 March, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Really great info here. I actually prefer to buy fresh foods because all the processed food warnings confuse me. Thanks for sharing!

    • 10 March, 2015 at 3:19 pm

      Yeah, you really can’t go wrong with eating fresh and natural! <3

  • 10 March, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    Interesting post, thanks for sharing!

    XO Imke

  • 10 March, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    I have always been told mixed things! I personally love a little salt 🙂
    Melanie @

  • 10 March, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    this post is interesting with me, since i’m quite often made homemade charcuteries
    if you know the proper treatment and the reccomendation ammount i think it’s pretty save,
    btw, chemical ingredients is chemical ingredients. no matter what
    the man made is more prescise, while the “natural” nitrate in a veggies is different acoordinr to many factors, so you can’t depend o it, especially for air dry curing
    if “natural” nitrate contain veggies is covered with vitamins, thus you should served cured meat cold cut on salad
    don;t forget to crisp bacon or poancetta on gentle low heat to prevent the nitrosamine comverting process happen
    this is similiar with “organic salt’ or other misconsept sugar coated branding tagline which cost you several times pricier than sea salt…
    there’s no organic salt, simply because salt is not made from organic compound, it’s also inert, sopretty much a hoax branding

    • 10 March, 2015 at 4:11 pm

      That’s true, too many people like to tag “organic” onto too many things that inherently CANNOT be organic. Salt is a good example, honey is another. Since bees travel MILES upon MILES to gather pollen for honey, unless you certify every single plant within a huge radius of your hives, there is NO WAY to have “organic” honey! It’s wise to read up on and better understand our food, how it is processed, and what is safe or acceptable!

  • 10 March, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    I honestly didn’t know very much about nitrates so I’m glad you wrote this! I have been making an effort to eat more real, unprocessed foods too so I really appreciate articles like this 🙂

    • 10 March, 2015 at 7:16 pm

      Yay! I’m glad you found it useful!! <3

  • 10 March, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Oh wow, what an informative post, Gingi, thank you! I must admit that I never gave any thought about food, I just eat whatever and whenever but I can see why I should really pay more attention to stuff.

    Shireen | Reflection of Sanity

  • 11 March, 2015 at 3:21 pm

    So yes, I am massively confused about nitrates! But I get at least one call every day from my mom (LOL) reminding me not to eat nitrates or I’ll drop dead. She’s particularly hammering my bacon obsession and tells me that I have to buy the nitrate free kind. I avoid nitrates and processed foods (especially stuff like pop, icky) when I can. And lunch meat in general is gross, but kids seem to love it and it’s easy and quick. Tough one Gingi!

    • 14 March, 2015 at 12:51 am

      LOL, hey at least she’s concerned about your health, lol! I think I’ll just err on the side of caution and stick to whole and natural foods when possible!

  • 11 March, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    Yes, I’m very confused! I generally buy local and organic cold cuts, but that doesn’t mean some nitrates or nitrites haven’t passed my way.
    Tough call!

  • 12 March, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Wow, this information is so useful and comprehensive! Agree that it’s always best to cut down on processed food of any sort and to consume more natural food products! Thanks for sharing!


  • 12 March, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    i don’t eat lunch meats. they’ve always freaked me out.

    • 14 March, 2015 at 12:53 am

      LOL, yeah, some can be freaky deaky. 😉

  • 12 March, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    Oh man! There is so much to consider here! I’m honestly not sure where I fall on this. Sandwich meat isn’t a favorite of mine anyway so it’s not something I’ve thought a lot about. But you make some really good points!

  • 15 March, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    I’m a vegetarian and have been for many years, so I haven’t given nitrates in cold cuts that much thought. Most people in my life do eat meat, but I don’t think they generally eat much in the way of lunch meats. I am really impressed though with the thought and how thorough your post is on this topic! Very informative and thought provoking.

    In response to your question on my blog, I do on occasion do commissions, if you have a special painting in mind, feel free to contact me at originalslrdesigns (at) yahoo .com.

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