My husband and I started drinking beet juice about two months ago or so. To say honestly, I don’t remember why we decided to go with beet juice. Most likely, because I wanted to juice vegetables, but not to spend a fortune on them, and beets were a good choice.
It was later when I started to read more and more about super powers of beet juice. And many of these superpowers were related to high Nitrate content in the juice.
Wait a minute… Aren’t Nitrates in deli meats added as preservatives are linked to asthma and cancer? And what’s about Nitrates in water? They counted as contaminants and strictly regulated by law.
I was totally puzzled by that entire “Nitrates” thing. Why, suddenly, Nitrates in vegetable juices as in beet, celery, and spinach juices are considered healthy and super good for you?
In fact, so helpful, that they can replace a blood pressure medicine and Viagra (you can read more about health benefits of beet juice here).
So will they kill you or cure you?
I tell you the answer to this big secret right away, you are safe… most likely… because there are certain mistakes you can do to turn all good about Nitrates into all bad. And almost NOBODY is talking about them.
If you conscious about your health, please, read this article carefully.
In this article you will find the answer to such questions:
“Why Nitrates in vegetable juices make you a superhuman and Nitrates in deli meats cause cancer?”
“Why Nitrates in water are poisonous and in vegetable juice are miraculous?”
“What mistakes you must avoid when drinking juices high in Nitrates?”
Why Nitrates in vegetable juices make you a superhuman and Nitrates in deli meats cause cancer?
Let’s start with clarifying that there is no difference between Nitrates and Nitrites you get from vegetables or their juices and Nitrates/Nitrites used in meat curing. They are exactly the same group of chemical compounds with NO3-
(Nitrate) or NO2- (nitrite) group.
The main difference is that Nitrate in deli meats ending up to form Nitrosamines and Nitrate from beet juice is converted to Nitric Oxide in your stomach. The first one causes cancer, the second one is responsible for numerous important processes in human body, and was proclaimed “Molecule of the Year” in 1992.
So what is N-Nitrosamine and Nitric Oxide? Let’s find out.
Nitrosamines or N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) are formed as a result of the reaction between amines and N-nitroso group -N(-R)-N=O. Amino acids in proteins are also amines, so any kind of protein as meat, fish or dairy plus Nitrite can form carcinogens NOCs. But red meat is the worst as it can form NOCs even under a neutral environment of the colon by reacting with iron containing heme in myoglobin.
However, different factors can help or interfere with Nitrosamines formation.
Factors that increase Nitrosamine formations
Temperature – When you heat proteins with added Nitrites you promote NOCs formation. The longer you heat and the higher the temperature is the more Nitrosamines you will get.
Acidity – Low pH also promotes NOCs formation. This one is important because your stomach acidity has pH=2. That’s low, meaning that even if you don’t heat your deli meats you will still get some Nitrosamines exposure after you eat cured meats.
Factors that decrease Nitrosamine formation
Ascorbic acid – Ascorbic acid is a synthetic form of Vitamin C. Ascorbic acid inhibits Nitrosamines synthesis by reacting with Nitrite. For that reason, USDA ruled that ascorbic acid must be added during meat curing. Unfortunately, another study found that in the presence of fat Ascorbic acid only increased NOCs formation in the stomach.
Phenols – A group of organic chemical compounds with a phenolic ring structure. There are different kinds of phenols. Many of them are powerful antioxidants. Mostly we get phenols in our diet from fruits, vegetables, and herbs. That is phenols what gives fruits their colors and aroma to herbs. There are also phenols in teas, coffee, and unrefined oils. α-tocopherol (Vitamin E) is also a phenolic compound. All phenols inhibit Nitrosamine synthesis.
To decrease your exposure to Nitrosamines, and still to enjoy bacon or bologna, remember these simple principals:
- Try not to overcook your bacon. One study showed that bacon cooked in microwave had less NOCs than bacon fried on the skillet
- You can take Vitamin C or eat/drink food rich in this vitamin in order to decrease your exposure to NOCs when you eat lean deli meats
- When you eat your sandwich with bologna or fried bacon, eat it with vegetables (preferably low in nitrates) or follow with fresh fruits, preferably berries
But by far, the most effective principal in avoiding Nitrosamines will be to eat less of processed meat and fish in general. All in life is about a balance: occasional consumption of bacon and other cured meats with added Nitrates and Nitrites won’t kill you if you follow a healthy lifestyle in general. But you need to rethink your cancer risk if you eat those on daily basis.
And don’t think that you are safe with bacon cured with celery juice instead of Sodium Nitrite. Nitrates in celery are the same as in conventional bacon. You will get the same amount of Nitrosamines in your stomach, if not higher, as Sodium Nitrite is regulated more strictly than celery juice.
Don’t forget from where we started: besides NOCs, which are totally bad for you, Nitrates can be transformed to Nitric Oxide, which is totally awesome for you. So let’s figure out what is Nitric Oxide and how to make it work.
Awesome Nitric Oxide
Nitric Oxide (NO-) is a free radical that exists in a body for a couple of seconds but plays a very important role. It relaxes a wall of blood vessels, this helps to decrease blood pressure and to improve blood flow. It also was shown to increase the time to failure by around 20% during medium to high-intensity physical exercise and enhance blood flow to the penis (improved erection) during sexual activities. In fact, Viagra, help erection by decreasing destruction of the compound made as a result of NO- binding to certain receptors.
Nitric Oxide also helps to kill bacteria in the stomach and thickens mucosal layer what can be very useful for people who suffer from gastric ulcers.
We have an enzyme in our body called Nitric Oxide synthase (NOS) that can synthesize Nitric Oxide from amino acid L-arginine. For that reason, L-arginine is recommended as a supplement for men with erectile dysfunction.
But it’s not the only way how Nitric Oxide can be synthesized in our body. There is an alternative way of NO- production through reduction of dietary Nitrates and Nitrites. This pathway becomes even more important later in life as the effectiveness of NO- synthesis from L-arginine drops significantly with age.
But even if you’re young and healthy extra Nitric Oxide in your blood flow will cause only positive effects like increased stamina and endurance.
For that reason shots made of concentrated Nitrate rich beetroot juice marketed as a pre-workout booster. And it really works.
How Nitrate is turned into Nitric Oxide in our body
In order to make Nitric Oxide work for you, we need to understand how it’s made in your body.
After you drank your Nitrate rich juice (spinach, beet, celery etc.) or ate whole Nitrate rich foods (though you won’t get the pick of Nitric Oxide as high as with juice) Nitrate gets into your stomach and are absorbed into your bloodstream.
From bloodstream, Nitrate gets into your saliva, where they get reduced to Nitrite by bacteria on the root of your tongue. You constantly swallow saliva and in this way Nitrite gets into your stomach. Under the acidic condition of stomach, Nitrite is forming nitrous acid (HNO2) which decomposes further to form NO-. Some nitrite will be absorbed into the blood and will form Nitric Oxide in the bloodstream by reacting with deoxygenated hemoglobin or in the muscle tissues by reacting with myoglobin.
As was mentioned above Nitric Oxide has a short lifetime, as it’s very reactive and will form more stable Nitrite again, which can be turned to NO- again or excreted with urine by kidneys.
The effects of Nitrate rich juice will be maximal in 2-3 hours after juice consumption and will fade away within 24 hours.
What can interfere with Nitric Oxide Formation?
Microflora disruption - You need symbiotic bacteria in your mouth to make Nitrite (persecutor of Nitric Oxide). No bacteria, no Nitrite, no Nitric Oxide. You can wipe out your friendly bacteria by taking antibiotics or using mouthwash every day. One study recorded that bacteria will repopulate your tongue 10 days after you stopped using mouthwash.
Proton Pump inhibitors – These group of drugs lower acid production in stomach what interferes with Nitric Oxide production, as it requires low pH.
Dietary Proteins – Formation of Nitrosamines can compete with Nitric Oxide synthesis in the presence of proteins.
What can help in Nitric Oxide Formation?
Vitamin C and polyphenols promotes Nitric Oxide synthesis in the stomach by donating electrons
Acidosis and Hypoxia which occur in healthy individuals during medium to high-intensity exercise and promotes synthesis of Nitric Oxide in blood vessels and muscles
Now you know a lot about Nitrosamines and Nitric Oxide and can understand that in the case with deli meats and bacon you consume protein rich food with high level of Nitrate/Nitrite and no antioxidants. It means that everything about processed meats favors formation of cancer causing compounds. While when you eat Nitrate rich whole foods and drink their juices, you get everything that you need for Nitric Oxide formation in one cup: low protein, high phenol, and Vitamin C content.
“Why Nitrates in water are poisonous and in vegetable juice are miraculous?”
Several million kilograms of Nitrate salts (like ammonium Nitrate, Potassium Nitrate, and others) are synthesized in the lab for use as fertilizers in agriculture. It made in such volume because it’s used a lot. Obviously, not all Nitrates are used by growing plants some of them washed out by rain so they end up in groundwater.
The government strictly regulates Nitrates in water. The biggest concern about water high in Nitrates is its consumption by infants under 6 months, as it can cause Blue baby syndrome or Methemoglobinemia. Nitrates, after it converted to Nitrites, can react with hemoglobin (Hb, a molecule that transports oxygen) and form Methemoglobin (MetHb). MetHb can’t carry oxygen so the body starts to be deprived of it, and baby literally turns blue.
However, the risk is real only for infants, as they have a special form of hemoglobin (γ-hemoglobin), which is more susceptible to MetHb formation, plus low activity of enzyme Cytochrome-b5 reductase needed for transformation MetHb back to Hb. In the case of adults, no acute side effects will be caused by water that high in Nitrates. And as one article analyzed that many other factors play role in whether baby develops symptoms after drinking water contaminated with Nitrates. With another article is suggesting that acceptable limits of Nitrates in potable water can be set much higher without any concerns for human health.
Basically, there is no reason to fear Nitrates in water more than Nitrites in deli meats. Whether Nitrates in water will do harm to you or good depends on what food you will be consuming them and either you have other health concerns which can increase the formation of MetHb.
However, in order to have peace of mind and control on what you’re ingesting I would, definitely, recommend getting rid of Nitrates in water by simply filtering it. Even the cheapest pitcher filter will do that.
How do you know if you have Nitrate in your water?
Different factors can influence how much Nitrates can get into your tap water. The risk is the highest with well water for homes located not far from a farm. Though Nitrates also present in soil naturally and even without nearby farm you can be over the present limit of 50mg/L.
But as it was already said, it’s easier to buy a filter for as low as 30$ than to try to figure out how much Nitrates could be flowing from your tap. Plus even basic filter will remove other contaminants from your water like chlorine and rust.
Bottom line, the danger of Nitrates in water is largely overestimated and don’t pose significant risks for most people. But if you think about getting positive effects out of Nitrates, Nitrate rich vegetables and their juices still will be the best choice (read about that above).
“What mistakes you must avoid when drinking juices high in Nitrates?”
Mistakes that you can make about Nitrate rich juice will diminish positive effects of it and can bring unwanted health harming ones, so be sure to understand all points.
- You can’t use antibacterial mouthwash because you need bacteria on root of your tongue to transform NO3- in NO2-, which then can be reduced to NO-. If you’re using it but will stop, it will take a week or two for bacteria to repopulate your tongue.
- Same situation with antibiotics, you can’t reduce Nitrates to Nitrites while you’re taking antibiotics and some period of time after you finished them, as your microflora needs time for recovery (fermented foods will help to speed up this process).
- If you take proton pump inhibitors (for conditions related to high acidity in the stomach) you can’t effectively transform Nitrites to Nitric Oxide in the stomach.
- Don’t eat any red meat during the day you drink Nitrate rich juices, as you will end up with cancer causing Nitrosamines in your intestine. Heme iron from red meat can form Nitrosamines even under neutral pH of the intestine.
- Try to avoid proteins to be present in your stomach 2-3 hours after you drank the juice. As Nitrites will peak in your stomach around this time, so you want them to transform to NO-rather than to NOCs.
How to achieve this? It depends on your diet. But some of the suggestions are:
- If you drink the veggie juice right before a meal, eat “lighter” proteins like eggs, fish, chicken and soft cheeses (farmer’s and cottage cheese) and avoid “heavy” proteins like beans, legumes, and hard cheeses. Lighter proteins will leave your stomach before the Nitrite peak, giving fewer opportunities for Nitrosamines to form;
- If you want to drink a protein shake, choose whey protein as it digests faster, and drink it right after juice or 5+ hours later;
- If you ate lean proteins you can take Vitamin C or eat berries (that’s even better) like raspberries, blueberries or blackberries 2 hours after you drank juice, this decrease Nitrosamine formation in stomach;
- If you have habit eating meals low in proteins, eat them around the time you drank juice. Though, most of the people will benefit from protein consumption with every major meal, as it helps to keep leptin under check and keep your body and especially muscles in an anabolic state.
But most importantly remember that even if you drank Nitrate rich juice and ate stake the same day, you won’t get cancer next day. It’s choices we make on an everyday basis what increases or decreases our chances to get cancer. So be mindful, but don’t be paranoid.
You shouldn’t be afraid of vegetable juices with high Nitrate content (as it’s a healthy way to boost your Nitric Oxide production), neither to worry much about Nitrates in your tap water. The most dangerous nitrates are lurking in processed meats and bacon (even in one marketed as uncured), so it’s better avoiding it.