Is Sodium Nitrate Safe?

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on February 23, 2024
3 min read

Most packaged foods you buy at the grocery store are made with additives to preserve freshness, maintain flavor, and prolong shelf life. But you may not know exactly how these additives affect your health.

Sodium nitrate (and its cousin additive sodium nitrite) is a common preservative used in cured meat products including bacon, deli meat, and jerky. It has been linked to the development of heart disease and diabetes. This additive has been cut out from some foods due to these concerns.

Sodium nitrate and nitrite are added to processed and cured meats to preserve shelf life and to give them flavor and a pink color. Nitrates and nitrites are also found in vegetables such as celery and spinach, and as contaminants in tap water.

The human body needs nitrates and nitrites. These additives serve an important bodily function. Your body breaks down nitrates into nitrites, which it then converts into either nitric oxide or nitrosamines.

Most of our nitrates and nitrites come naturally from vegetables. In fact, around 85% of the nitrates and nitrites in our diet come from vegetables.

Nitric oxide. This molecule is a huge supporter of heart health in your body. Many nitrate and nitrates and, consequently, nitric oxide come from vegetables. So it makes sense that a vegetable-based diet is better for your heart in the following ways:

  • Nitric oxide protects against cardiovascular disease.
  • It lowers blood pressure.
  • It improves blood flow.

Nitrosamines. This compound is at the heart of why nitrates and nitrites are considered toxic. Nitrosamines are a carcinogen, or a cancer-causing substance. They are found everywhere in our environment, including the air and water. They are also in certain drugs. Yet nitrosamines earned their reputation from the sodium nitrate in our food.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that processed meats were carcinogens, it was mostly in regard to the nitrates and nitrites being potentially cancer-causing. This has led to several reactions against the preservatives.

Many supermarkets offer organic, nitrate-free alternatives to processed meats. But the companies behind these products must still preserve their processed meats. They do this by using celery powder.

It’s still sodium nitrate. By definition, the use of celery powder in place of chemically processed sodium nitrate makes the product organic. But this doesn’t mean that the organic hot dogs on your grocer’s shelves contain any less sodium nitrate. It’s still used by your body and can become nitrosamines just as easily as a chemically processed sodium nitrate.

Added sodium nitrate has strict limits. Per FDA, sodium nitrite cannot exceed 200 ppm and sodium nitrate cannot exceed 500 ppm in the finished product. The parts per million (ppm) signifies the number of nitrates and nitrites in a curing salt. The rest is sodium chloride (salt):

  • Bacon: 120 ppm or 0.012%
  • Dry-cured bacon: 200 ppm or 0.02%
  • Cured sausage: 156 ppm or 0.0156%
  • Brine-cured ham or pastrami: 200 ppm or 0.02%
  • Dry-cured meat product: 625 ppm pr 0.0625%

Sodium nitrate has limits, celery powder doesn’t. The USDA doesn’t regulate celery salt like it does chemically processed sodium nitrate. The amount of nitrate residue on products with natural sources of nitrates is about 10 times higher than that on than traditionally cured products.

Other sodium nitrate substitutes to look out for are juices or powders made from:

  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Spinach

When added to meat products, these derivatives create nitrates that stop bacterial growth just like sodium nitrates and nitrites.

As of right now, there’s nothing that conclusively shows that sodium nitrates are unsafe. It’s an important compound that your body needs to maintain cardiovascular health. The real culprit seems to be processed meats, not nitrates.

Treat it like any other vitamin compound. There are many vitamins and minerals that are necessary for your health, but in excess can lead to toxicity. Getting nitrates from vegetables rather than the salt of processed meats will provide your body with the healthy compounds it needs.

Rather than worry about the nitrates themselves, worry about where they come from. Processed meats provide you with very little nutritional benefit, while vegetables provide you with healthy carbs and fiber. These natural alternatives also help prevent the conversion of nitrosamines. They help to keep the nitrates and nitrites you eat from becoming carcinogens.