What Are Nitrates? - Definition, Foods & Side Effects

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  • 0:01 What Are Nitrates?
  • 2:07 Foods
  • 2:47 Side Effects
  • 3:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jayne Yenko

Jayne has taught health/nutrition and education at the college level and has a master's degree in education.

Nitrates are inorganic compounds that can be found in nature and in several foods we eat. In this lesson, we'll learn more about what nitrates are, what foods contain them and what side effects might occur if we consume too many of them.

What Are Nitrates?

Can you guess how much bacon you've consumed in your lifetime? While you were enjoying this cured meat for breakfast, or maybe even added to your ice cream, did you know it contains something called nitrates?

Nitrates are inorganic compounds made up of nitrogen and oxygen, NO3 (one nitrogen and three oxygen molecules). These compounds combine with other elements like sodium and potassium to make sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate. They are used as preservatives and color fixatives in cured meats and have other industrial uses, such as in gunpowder, explosives, fertilizers, and glass enamels.

When we eat nitrates, they are converted into nitrites in our digestive system, which are then converted to ammonia and disposed of by the body. Nitrites are also inorganic compounds made up of nitrogen and oxygen, but instead of three oxygen molecules they have two, NO2.

Nitrates are not generally harmful unless they are consumed in massive quantities. Nitrites, on their own and in moderation, are also generally not harmful. However, nitrites can be degraded into carcinogenic compounds by high heat and also by digestive enzymes. Nitrites are particularly good at preventing botulism - an anaerobic form of bacteria that causes paralysis and death - which is why small amounts of these compounds are added to cured meats. Neither nitrates nor nitrites are good at preventing contamination by other kinds of bacteria, like E. coli.

Nitrate occurs naturally in the soil, either by itself or as a compound such as sodium nitrate. The largest natural deposits of sodium nitrate are located in Chile and Peru. The War of the Pacific (1879-1884) was over control of these deposits and pitted Chile against Peru and Bolivia. Early in the 20th century, synthetic sodium nitrate began to be produced, and by the 1940's, the demand for naturally-produced sodium nitrate dropped dramatically.


Nitrates are present naturally in root vegetables like carrots and potatoes, and also in green, leafy vegetables like spinach and kale. Nitrites, however, are highly reactive and generally are not found in nature. Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrites are added to cured meats like bacon and deli meats and also to poultry and fish.

Less than 10 percent of nitrate in our diet comes from meat products, but these same products account for 60 to 90 percent of the nitrite eaten. The bacteria in our digestive systems supply a small amount of nitrate. Dairy products, grains, and fruits contribute practically no nitrates or nitrites to the food supply.

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