Nitrite and nitrate have the same source: nitrogen (N). We get these chemical compounds through our diet (certain vegetables, tap water, additives, etc.). In this way, they end up in the saliva and blood, among other things. Under certain circumstances, their effects can be harmful.
The main sources of nitrate and nitrite are:
- Vegetables (41%): mainly leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach
- Fruit (18%)
- Drinking water (3 to 19%)
- Additives (E-numbers), such as preservatives in meat products and cheese (9%)
Nitrate and nitrite
Nitrate itself is not dangerous to health, but your body can convert nitrate into nitrite. Nitrite can have a negative effect on your body, as this substance can reduce the level of oxygen in the blood. Under certain circumstances, nitrite can also be converted into nitrosamines that are likely to be carcinogenic. But it’s unlikely that the amount you ingest through your food is harmful.
Despite the poor image of nitrate-rich vegetables, experts agree that it is highly doubtful that eating these vegetables poses a health risk. When you eat many different types of vegetables, it still provides more advantages than disadvantages. For example, vegetables lower your risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
How much nitrate is safe?
Nitrate can be added to drinking water and as an additive to cheeses and meats to keep them fresh for longer. But nitrate standards apply to these additives. These maximum amounts are well below the nitrate levels in vegetables.
The acceptable daily intake of nitrate is set at 3.7 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. That’s equivalent to 259 mg of nitrate per day for a 70-pound adult. Individuals who eat 400 g of vegetables with an average nitrate content daily and vary regularly take an average of 157 mg of nitrate. That is well below the maximum daily acceptable intake. Those who have a diet with little variation in vegetables and with predominantly leafy vegetables such as spinach and arugula can exceed the maximum intake.
Nitrate for babies
For babies, there is a restriction on nitrate-rich products. Babies younger than six months have a low stomach acid production, which means that they form more nitrite in their bodies when taking food. Nitrite also binds better in babies to proteins that provide oxygen transport. As a result, they can get an oxygen shortage.
For bottle-feeding, it is, therefore, better to use low-nitrate water. Jars of baby food are normally produced through processes in which it is minimal or no nitrite formation.