Food Science

What Is Sodium Nitrate?

Evolution is that change in the world that impacts everything, and with the introduction of science and technology, several aspects of life changed, which made everything much easier for the common man. The age-old methodology of preserving food also changed drastically. In the early days, natural ingredients such as vinegar, sugar, salt, citrus fruit juice, and more were some of the preservatives used. With evolution, the food industries started using chemically enhanced inorganic substances instead.

The purpose of using preservatives by the food industry was to increase the shelf life of the food products, which otherwise would go bad. Food goes bad due to oxidation or the growth of mold, which is a natural process. Oxidation of food cannot be stopped, but it can be delayed. Preservatives help to maintain the freshness of the food item in appearance and consistency by fighting spoilage caused by fungus, yeast, molds, and bacteria. They are also used in medicines, cosmetics, personal care, and even in wood. Some of the preservatives that are widely used include propylparaben, BHA and BHT, sodium benzoate, sodium sulfite, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, and more.

What Is Sodium Nitrate? 

Nitrate is composed of nitrogen and oxygen, which occur naturally in the environment, and is a part of the nitrogen cycle, as well as an important nutrient to plants and animals. Sodium nitrate is composed of sodium and nitrate anion with chemical formula NANO3. It is an inorganic nitrate salt of an alkali metal and is commonly referred to as Chile saltpeter, owing to the huge deposits found in Chile. It is a non-flammable compound with a strong oxidizing agent. It is not a fire risk, but if it comes in contact with fire, it may result in an explosion as well. 

Sodium nitrate is an odorless, colorless, crystalline compound, which is used for several purposes, from preservative in foods to medicines and fertilizers, among others. It is a naturally occurring substance that is found in air, water, and some fruits and vegetables, such as spinach, beetroot, amaranth, and white radish. When exposed to natural digestive bacteria, sodium nitrate converts to sodium nitrite in the body. Considering the same, manufacturers in the food industry add synthetic sodium nitrite instead of following a lengthy process of gradually converting nitrate to nitrite.

Differences Between Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite

Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate are sometimes confused to be one and the same. Sodium nitrate is a precursor to sodium nitrite, which has different properties and uses. Both nitrites and nitrates are compounds that are added to processed foods to increase their shelf life and offer the following differences –

  • Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate are two different types of compounds. Nitrites consist of one nitrogen (N) atom and two oxygen (O2) atoms, and nitrates consist of one nitrogen (N) atom and three oxygen (O3) atoms. They differ by only one oxygen atom and have the chemical names NaNO2 and NaNO3 respectively.
  • Sodium nitrite is a white to slightly yellow crystalline powder, while sodium nitrate is a white crystalline powder. 
  • The most vital difference between the two is that sodium nitrite is synthetically made, whereas sodium nitrate is a naturally occurring chemical substance that is produced during photosynthesis.
  • Nitrites can turn into:
    • Nitric oxide, which is helpful for the body.
    • Nitrosamines, which may be harmful.
  • Nitrates, on the other hand, are reasonably inert, meaning, they are stable. They are unlikely to change and cause any harm. But the enzymes in your body or bacteria in the mouth can convert them into nitrites, which may be harmful.
  • Both nitrites and nitrates, when added with sodium, are used as preservatives. Without nitrates and other additives, a piece of meat would turn brown and spoil sooner than later. As meat is cured with nitrites, they are either pink or red in color. The nitrites in the meat turn into nitric oxide, which reacts with protein. Manufacturers add nitrates and other additives to preserve meat and increase their shelf life. Both nitrate and nitrite are useful in preserving meat. By adding them to processed meat, they help to:
    • Stop the progress of harmful bacteria
    • Improve the meat’s appearance 
    • Add a salty flavor to them

Sources of Sodium Nitrate

How can you be exposed to anything? Most times, exposure happens when substances enter into your body through air, water, and food. There are several ways in which nitrate can enter into your body that include the following –

Through Drinking Water

Water is the largest carrier of several substances that enter into our body. Water contamination is a common occurrence that causes several health problems. Nitrogen poisoning in infants who are bottle-fed happens when contaminated drinking water is used to dilute infant formula. In rural areas, nitrogen-based fertilizers get into shallow drinking water wells and contaminate them. Fertilizers are the largest source of nitrates in water. Poor working sewer systems and animal waste are other sources through which drinking water gets contaminated with nitrates. 

Through Food

Your diet is another source through which nitrate can enter into your body. Sodium nitrate is used in food preservation, and it is also found in certain vegetables and fruits. The daily allowable intake for nitrates in the diet is set by several health organizations throughout the world. While vegetables and fruits are a vital part of a healthy diet, most of the nitrate in your diet comes from vegetables. The amount of nitrate that is consumed by an individual through vegetables cannot be determined accurately since the amount of nitrate in vegetables differs on the basis of the type of vegetable. It also depends on how the vegetable was stored, as well as how it was prepared for meals. Spinach, white radish, beetroot, cauliflower, and broccoli are some of the vegetables that have a high nitrate content when compared to other foods. Apart from fruits and vegetables, meat and sausages that are preserved in nitrate are other sources of nitrate exposure.

Other Sources

Other sources of nitrate include various medications and creams used to treat burns and sometimes through cosmetics products as well.

Uses of Sodium Nitrate

Sodium nitrate is used as a preservative in meat such as ham, sausage, hot dogs, salami, bologna, and other deli meat. It is used to preserve the meat as a pink or red color and to prevent the growth of the bacteria that spoil them. It is not added to poultry or tuna, as there is no red in them to preserve. Because of the long aging time required, sodium nitrate is also used to cure ham. When added to meat as a preservative, sodium nitrate draws out the moisture from the food by the process of osmosis. This process is called curing, which is mostly used to preserve meat. By increasing the solute concentration in the food and decreasing its water potential, the food, especially meat, becomes inhospitable for the microbe growth that usually causes food spoilage.

Health Effects of Sodium Nitrate

The effects of sodium nitrate on health depend on the form of the substance that enters the body. For instance, the nitrate that is in certain fruits and vegetables that we consume does not cause any harm to the body. At times, when the body does not have enough fluid due to dehydration or diarrhea, nitrates can change to nitrites in greater amounts and lead to health problems. 

At times, your body may be exposed to more sodium nitrate than required. When that happens, depending on the various health conditions that it affects, your body will start to show several symptoms like:

  • A heartbeat that does not feel normal
  • Blurred eyesight
  • Dizziness that is severe
  • Passing out
  • Fast and increased breathing
  • Feeling confused
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Seizures

These are some of the common symptoms which indicate that the body is exposed to a substance that can cause other health problems if medical attention is not given.

Methemoglobinemia

When the body consumes a high amount of sodium nitrate in the form of food, water, or medicine, the saliva converts it into nitrites, which in turn affect the body. Methemoglobinemia is a red blood cell problem in which the body produces an abnormal amount of methemoglobin by oxidizing hemoglobin, or when nitrite in the blood deactivates hemoglobin. Sodium nitrite in large doses can lead to this condition, which is a form of anemia which can also be fatal.

Symptoms of methemoglobinemia include:

  • A heartbeat that does not feel normal
  • Blue or gray color of the lips, nails, or skin
  • Convulsions or coma
  • Extremely painful headaches
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Feeling extremely sleepy
  • Severe dizziness or passing out
  • Seizures
  • Shortness of breath

Does Sodium Nitrate Have Any Connection to Cancer?

Nitrate by itself is a non-toxic substance. But its metabolites, such as nitrite, cause several health problems that include methemoglobinemia, acidosis, and cancer. The carcinogenicity of nitrate and nitrite that is consumed was evaluated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization. It was found that nitrates and nitrites have shown to cause cancer in experimental animals, but the evidence was inadequate or too limited to connect it with risk to humans. With the available evidence, the European Food Safety Authority also concluded that the intake of nitrates and nitrites from drinking water or diet is not associated with the risk of cancer.

Sodium nitrate and its relation to cancer is a debatable topic, as several human studies have shown that processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer. Of all the types of meat, bacon is considered a potential health risk, as it is high in nitrite, and when fried at high temperatures, it can form nitrosamines, which increase the risk of cancer.

Is Sodium Nitrate Bad for You? 

Sodium nitrate is an additive. It is a preservative that is added to meat to extend its shelf life. But do you know how a preservative reacts when it enters the body? Nitrates are organic substances and form a huge part of our normal diet. But some researchers believe that it can lead to colorectal cancer. Leukemia, heart disease, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, esophageal, thyroid, as well as ovarian and pancreatic cancer are some of the other diseases associated with high intake of sodium nitrate. But there is no conclusive evidence to link that sodium nitrate can cause these problems. 

However, every person is not suited to consume it. You must not take sodium nitrate if:

  • You are allergic to sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite, or any other part of sodium nitrate.
  • You are allergic to any drug, food, or any substance that contains sodium nitrate.
  • You are pregnant or want to be pregnant.
  • Due to its potential risk to an infant, it is not suitable for breastfeeding women.
  • You have low blood pressure.

Sodium nitrate can cause an allergic reaction in some people. This reaction is caused by excessive consumption, improperly cooked food, dehydration, and consumption of contaminated water, among several such reasons. When the body is subject to an allergic reaction to sodium nitrate, it shows signs and symptoms that include the following:

  • Itching, rashes, and hives
  • Red, inflamed, scalded, or peeling skin, with or without a fever
  • Swelling of the face, mouth, lips, tongue, or throat
  • Trouble breathing, swallowing, or talking
  • Tightness in the chest or throat
  • Unusual hoarseness
  • Wheezing

Whether sodium nitrate is good or bad for you depends on the amount that is consumed, the source of consumption, and any prevailing health conditions. If you suffer any signs or symptoms mentioned above, visit your healthcare provider immediately. 

When Should You Call Your Doctor?

Different health conditions caused by sodium nitrate show different symptoms. Some of the common symptoms include feeling extremely tired, sleepy, or weak, shortness of breath, numbness, tingling, abnormal heartbeat, swelling in the face, bluish skin caused by lack of oxygen, and more. It is important to call your doctor as soon as you experience any of these symptoms. As sodium nitrate affects children differently, it is important not to wait until the symptoms get worse. You can avoid visiting your doctor if you follow the acceptable daily intake as advised by your doctor. 

Benefits of Sodium Nitrate

Thanks to a molecule called nitric oxide, sodium nitrate has the potential to offer cardiovascular and other health benefits. Nitric oxide lowers blood pressure by dilating blood vessels and fighting against infections. In general, the body makes nitric oxide from an amino acid. But thanks to dietary nitrates, nitric oxide formation is made easy.

Natural foods are a great source of sodium nitrate, and consuming more vegetables that are high in sodium nitrates is better than the consumption of meat. Vegetables are rich in other nutrients. They contain protective components, such as vitamin C, fiber, and polyphenols, that are known to reduce the formation of nitrosamine. Nitrates in natural foods are a better choice than those used to cure meat.

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are preservatives, which when added to food, offer the following benefits:

  • They contribute to the enhancement of flavors by the inhibition of progress of rancid off-flavors.
  • They react with myoglobin to give mono-nitrosyl haemochrome, which gives the color pink or red to cured meat.
  • They inhibit the growth of food spoilage bacteria. 
  • Sodium nitrate and nitrate, with cooking and addition of salt, act as a protector against food poisoning by microorganisms.

Reducing Consumption of Sodium Nitrate

Sodium nitrate is not a threat to life unless you are overexposed to it. Overexposure that can be fatal is not only caused by excessive consumption of vegetables and meat that are rich in this substance. There are other sources that can lead to health problems. Finding these sources and avoiding them is the first step to reducing the overexposure to sodium nitrate.

Drinking Water

Nitrite and nitrate in the body can cause health problems, especially in infants. The first and foremost question to ask is, Where does your drinking water come from? The drinking water source needs to be tested regularly for contamination. Find all agricultural or industrial activities that may be close to the source of your drinking water. Nitrate that is present in fertilizers or industrial waste can get into the source of drinking water and contaminate it.

Next on your plate is to check the type of sewer system and understanding its proximity to the source of drinking water, as it can be the potential source of contamination. Additionally, floodwater can also contaminate drinking water with human and animal waste.

Your first step would be to find the source of contamination and take necessary action, such as calling local authorities and reporting it. You must ensure that the necessary steps are taken to control the contamination. You can make use of bottled water or other safer sources until the contamination is cleared.

Vegetables

You can avoid an overdose of sodium nitrate caused by vegetables by:

  • Keeping the vegetables and fruits under refrigeration
  • Cleanly washing, peeling, and blanching or cooking them appropriately 
  • Cooking vegetables immediately after cutting or mashing them

If you have an infant, make sure you test the water before diluting the infant formula. If the infant is four months of age or lesser, avoid food containing sodium nitrates. You can also avoid the use of cured meat and look for fresh meat instead. Follow the minimum daily requirement as suggested by your healthcare provider and maintain a healthy diet. Do not overindulge in food that is high in sodium nitrate.

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