NO, NO, NO!
The reason may have to do with the important biological role of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a molecule consisting of a nitrogen molecule and an oxygen molecules; NO. It was named the molecule of the year 1992. For discovering its potent an important biological effects as a cardiovascular signaling molecule; Robert F. Furchgott, Louis Ignarro, and Ferid Murad were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998.
A biological pathway known as the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide pathway increases the available levels of nitric oxide.[i] This exogenous pathway utilizes dietary nitrate and nitrites. Which of course, makes one wonder that if the only source of ingested nitrates and nitrites were artificial additives from Dow Chemical, how come there was a biological pathway already in place to put this to good use. Well, it turns out that most of the nitrates and nitrites that we consume come from plants!
And not just any plants. The leafy greens that are all too lacking in the modern Western diet and which are part of healthful diets across the globe are major sources of nitrates and nitrites that fuel this commanding need for such a physiologic powerhouse. Arugula, bok choy, spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard, celery, red beet roots, Chinese cabbage, radish, endive, mustard leaf, and fennel are a few of the vegetables that furnish the raw materials for our bodies to produce nitric oxide (NO).
But there is an important intermediate step. For us to produce our needed nitric oxide via this mechanism, we need minions. Specifically, we need the right combination of bacteria in our gut (including oral) microbiome [an important topic covered in my latest book, The Fallacy of the Calorie] for this reaction to occur.[ii] Eating foods rich in nitrates and nitrites has been shown to reduce the blood pressure and to inhibit platelet aggregation (the reason for the daily aspirin therapy in heart patients) and deliver other beneficial vasoprotective effects via just such a mechanism.[iii]
And the primary source of such foods within our diet is vegetables.[iv] Depending on the composition, it is estimated that less than 5 to 10% of all dietary nitrites come from such cured meats as bacon. Interestingly, the nitrites and nitrates that we consume from plants are actually the results of the symbiotic relationship between plants and nitrogen fixing bacteria.
It is these bacteria that provide the nitrites and nitrates that we gobble when we eat the greens. Studies suggest that on average 93% of the nitrites consumed each day come from vegetables. Despite being the source of such high nitrate and nitrite concentrations, the opinion of the Scientific Panel on Contaminants in the Food chain on a request from the European Commission to perform a scientific risk assessment on nitrate in vegetables, concluded that “Overall, the estimated exposures to nitrate from vegetables are unlikely to result in appreciable health risks, therefore the recognised [sic] beneficial effects of consumption of vegetables prevail.”[v] In other words, like your Momma told you, shut up and eat your veggies.
Part 4 to follow
[i] (Lundberg, Weitzberg, & Gladwin, 2008)
[ii] (Hezel & Weitzberg, 2013)
[iii] (Webb, et al., 2008)
[iv] (European Food Safety Aurthority, 2008)
[v] (European Food Safety Aurthority, 2008)