The Great Pretenders, Natural and Uncured
If dietary nitrates and nitrites are primarily derived from consuming vegetables and potentially yield health benefits –aren’t we all constantly berated to consume more vegetables, particularly leafy greens – then do we need to be paying exorbitant amounts of money for “natural,” “uncured,” or “no artificial nitrite/nitrate added” bacon?
The answer to that query would be “NO, NO, NO.” Starting with quality ingredients and adding the small amount of sodium nitrite required to eliminate the risk of botulinum poisoning and Listeria infection does not corrupt the endeavor.
The commercial products touting their “natural” or “no added nitrites” label are not a superior solution. These overpriced products are often treated and cured by using a “natural” source of NO2 or NO3 such as celery or beet juice along with salt, often in the form of sea salts. These products have been shown to have similar characteristics as traditionally cured meats; in fact this replicates many of the curing methods for various meat products prior to 1926.[i]
By law, since they do not add sodium nitrite they must be labeled “uncured” although in fact they are cured using the same chemistry that occurs when you add sodium nitrite to your pork bellies. While you may be paying a whole lot more for their product, a nitrate or nitrite by any other name is chemically the same. In fact, if dietary nitrites and nitrates caused cancers or other ill health effects; vegetarians and vegans would be dropping like flies.
The reason they don’t is that in addition to the bulk of nitrates and some nitrites coming from vegetables, 70-97% of our total nitrite exposure comes from our own saliva. And the nitrate in the food and water (yes, water is a source of nitrate accounting for up to 21% of our daily nitrate intake) we ingest is then converted to nitrite by our gut microbiome (approximately 5%–10% of the total) and our own enzymes. A total of about 25-45% of the total nitrate ingested is converted to nitrite. The rest is excreted in the urine with about 60-70% of ingested nitrate being excreted within 24 hours.
The nitrite (NO2) is then quickly absorbed into the systemic circulation where it can be converted to nitric oxide (NO). The average half-life of NO2 once absorbed is only one to five minutes before it is converted to NO.
This NO is identical to the NO produced by the endogenous pathway via the metabolism of L-arginine by nitric oxide synthase (the nitric oxide synthase (NOS) pathway). This is the same L-arginine added and sold as a supplement to increase your body’s levels of NO; also known as the endothelium-derived relaxing factor, or EDRF, for better health. A molecule by any other name…..The NO is then used by the body, recycled via enterosalivary circulation or excreted as a nitrite or nitrate.[ii]
Part 5 to follow
[i] (Sullivan, 2011)
[ii] (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; HHS, 2013)