Love them or hate them, hot dogs are a traditional summer food. In fact, there’s a good chance that many of us ate at least one a few weeks ago at a July 4 backyard barbecue. But like most deli meats, hot dogs contain nitrates, which are preservatives that have been the subject of some debate. But are they good for us or bad for us? And how important is it to look for nitrate-free products?
“We hear about nitrates and nitrites in our diets from time to time, but not everyone knows exactly what they are and how they work,” said Blount Memorial registered dietitian Heather Pierce. “Nitrates appear in hot dogs, bacon and other deli meats to keep them preserved until we buy them, take them home and eat them. They’re also commonly found in celery, beets, spinach, cabbage, collard greens and arugula. When we ingest nitrates, the bacteria we all have in our saliva converts them to nitrites, which become nitric oxide when they reach our stomachs and mix with our stomach acids,” she explained. “The good news is that nitric oxide actually is beneficial to our bodies. It can increase the elasticity of our blood vessels and can help lower blood pressure,” she added.
But it’s not all good news. “The downside of nitrates is that a diet that is high in processed meats has been linked to an increased risk for certain cancers that can appear in the digestive tract,” Pierce said. “This isn’t conclusive, but it’s definitely something to be aware of, particularly if you eat a lot of processed meats. When nitrates mix with high heat and protein, it creates nitrosamines, which can be carcinogenic,” she explained.
Fortunately, Pierce says the potentially harmful effects of nitrates can be minimized by taking a few extra precautions. “If you’re concerned about nitrates, you can start by looking for products that are nitrate-free,” Pierce said. “The trick here is to really check the ingredients, because if a nitrate-free product contains celery juice or powder, sometimes that product actually can contain more nitrates. If you’re buying processed meats, be sure to read carefully and find products that truly are nitrate-free. Sometimes, organic foods are nitrate-free, but it’s still important to check as simply being labeled ‘organic’ isn’t a nitrate-free guarantee. Purchasing locally sourced meats often can mean fewer nitrates, but it’s still worth verifying beforehand. Sometimes, you can reduce the amount of nitrates simply in how you prepare your foods. Bacon, for instance, can be cooked at lower heat and slower to help minimize the negative effects of the nitrates it contains,” she explained.
“On the positive side, laws and consumer demand has significantly reduced the amount of nitrates in foods over the past few decades,” Pierce continued. “Many products, by law, also have vitamin C added to help reduce the formation of the carcinogenic nitrosamines. You can always assist by adding more foods that are rich in vitamin C to your meals, such as salads, bell peppers and tomato slices. The bottom line is that it’s okay to enjoy some processed meats occasionally, but be sure that you’re choosing as many unprocessed meats as possible,” she added.