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Nitrates in Food: Risks

By Heather Rutherford ; Updated April 18, 2017

Nitrates help preserve packaged foods, such as hot dogs and lunch meats, and give them a pleasing pink shade. They also are in your drinking water, particularly well water, and many fruits and vegetables. However, too many nitrates in your diet may have dire consequences. In fact, high levels of nitrates are considered so dangerous that some nations, such as Canada, have restricted the amount of nitrates that can be used in food processing.

Cancer Risk

When nitrates are heated, they sometimes combine with certain amino acids to create carcinogenic nitrosamines. These carcinogens can cause an array of cancers in both children and adults. One study, published in the March 1994 issue of, “Cancer Causes and Control,” shows a correlation between childhood brain tumors and eating cured meats once or twice a week. Researchers also found that pregnant women who consumed hot dogs more than once a week, while pregnant, were more likely to have children with brain tumors.

Pregnancy Risks

Pregnant women should be particularly cautious in consuming nitrates. An environmental fact sheet published by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, claims that pregnant women with high nitrate levels may have an increased chance of having a baby with a neural tube defect. Neural tube defects are birth defects that affect the spinal cord or brain, such as spina bifida. These defects can result in stillbirth or paralysis of your baby. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that increased exposure to nitrates during pregnancy may also cause fetat heart defects, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or miscarriage.


Nitrates appear in the breast milk of mothers who consume large amounts of nitrates, ground water used to mix formula and some baby foods. Consuming these sources of nitrates puts your baby at an increased risk of developing methemoglobinemia. This condition, sometimes called “blue baby syndrome,” prevents the blood from carrying oxygen throughout the body, causing the skin to turn blue or purple, according to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. While infants under the age of 6 months are at the highest risk, adults with certain hereditary susceptibilities may develop this condition as well. Methemoglobinemia is a treatable condition, but you can die from suffocation if you are not treated.

Minimize Exposure

Nitrates frequently appear in bacon, hot dogs, salami and other packaged meats. It is often easy to pick out which meats contain nitrates, as these meats appear pink in color. Safe meats will look brown or gray, according to Canada's Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives. However, many meats that are typically pink in color, such as hot dogs, are available in nitrate-free varieties. If you cannot find these brands on your grocery store shelves, ask the manager to carry a nitrate-free variety.

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