It can sometimes be hard to keep track of what’s in pre-prepared and packaged foods. For instance, many processed types of meat contain preservatives called nitrates and nitrites.
While that might mean you’re consuming a fair share of both, Blair Persyn, MS, RDN, LDN, CNSC, and owner of Bites With Blair, LLC, tells Eat This, Not That!, “Nitrites create N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) in the body, which are potential carcinogens. Also, nitrates can be converted into nitrites in the gut, making both compounds a concern.”
Persyn adds that “N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) in the gut cause damage to DNA, which can eventually lead to cancer.”
Indeed, a recent study that was published by Oxford University Press took a look at 101,056 adults and compared the risks of developing cancer between those who consumed nitrates and nitrites and those who did not.
The results suggested that regularly consuming products that contain nitrates increases the risk of breast cancer by around 25%. Beyond that, eating a high amount of food that contains nitrites increases the risk of prostate cancer by almost 60%.
“While this study is observational, it still has a large sample size and looks at a population of women that are somewhat health-conscious,” Persyn notes. “This means that the effect of these compounds is potentially more detrimental in the general population, who are typically eating less antioxidant-rich foods in their diet. Correlation does not mean causation for observational studies, but nitrates and nitrites have been proven to be carcinogenic in animal studies and the correlation in humans definitely warrants further investigation.”
If you want to avoid nitrates and nitrites in your diet, Persyn says people can do so “by omitting—or at least reducing their consumption of—processed meats like lunch meat, hot dogs, bacon, salami, sausage, and bologna.”
Persyn adds that “instead of the ultra-processed meats, people can opt for the fresh cuts of meat and poultry from the deli counter in grocery stores. We can also decrease our risk by including more antioxidant-rich foods in our diet—from a wide variety of plant-based foods—as they can help inhibit NOCs from forming.”
To find out more about what you might not have realized you’ve been eating, be sure to read 30 Shocking Secret Ingredients Hiding in Your Favorite Foods.