For months now I have seen a continual flow of people on the various Facebook Paleo groups, who either ask about nitrates, or have an established opinion that nitrates are an evil entity, and a nefarious destroyer of health.
We know that Paleo focuses on overall food quality. We seek out the best sources for real, whole foods, and none of the “processed” Franken-foods that we find within the scary center-isles of your local grocery store. Nitrates are a food additive, so the question is, are Nitrates Paleo friendly?
This is in essence a multi-faceted question. To break this down to a logical, realistic level, we should first ask, are nitrates “bad” for us? Then we can follow-up with the question, is it easy or realistic to avoid nitrates?
Part 1 – Are Nitrates “bad” for us?
Back in February of 2011, Mat Lalonde (aka The Kraken) who is a PhD biochemist, close friend to Robb Wolf, and presenter at the recent Ancestral Health Symposium 2011, posted a photo of Wild Boar Bacon on his Facebook page wall. I don’t claim to know Mat, but I saw his photo and saw that nitrates were listed as an ingredient, which I found ironic, so I posted this reply:
“Looks awesome…..those Nitrates just had to sneak in there, though I see…haha.”
Mat promptly replied with the following:
“Barry, there is no problem with nitrates. The whole thing was based on in vitro studies. Turns out that in vivo, nitrate is reduced to nitrite, which is then reduced ti nitric oxide (a.k.a NO). NO is a potent vasodilator and responsible for the blood pressure lowering effect of vegetable consumption. Do you have any idea how much nitrate is in celery? If nitrates and nitrites were really that bad, vegetables consumption would have been condemned a long time ago.
Here is a reference for you:
Inorganic Nitrate Supplementation Lowers Blood Pressure in Humans: Role of Nitrite-Derived NO.
Hypertension 2010, 56, 274-281
Dietary Inorganic Nitrate Improves Mitochondrial Efficiency in Humans.
Cell Metabolism 2011, 13, 149-159”
“in vitro” means that the components that are being referred to, are studied outside of the body, and therefore independent of the systems that they are usually associated with, inside a living organism. In contrast, “in vivo” means that the tests are conducted with the components intact, within a living organism. Obviously in vitro studies have many draw-backs and limitations, but in vivo studies are inherently more difficult to conduct and control, because of the multitude of confounding factors within a living host. In vivo studies are therefore, usually more meaningful than in vitro studies.
Anyone who is familiar with body-building supplements will know that nitric oxide (NO) enhancers are generally used before a resistance training session to enhance the muscle pump during the workout, which makes muscles appear larger thanks to vasodilation, or the expansion of the blood vessels. Most body-builders desire the “full”, powerful feeling that the NO pump delivers, and nitric oxide enhancing supplements are universally known to be perfectly safe.
The studies that Mat made reference to can be found here, and here. The studies show that compounds that exhibit this NO enhancing effect are also extremely useful for lowering blood pressure in humans. This is something that is undeniably beneficial for people with hypertension, or even more serious heart conditions.
Mat also mentions the fact that good old natural celery actually contains more naturally occurring nitrates than the amount that is added to your average industrially packaged bacon or other packaged meat products. You’ll need to forgive me for not providing a reference here, because I can’t remember who said it, or what particular podcast I heard it on (I listen to a lot!), but I heard “an expert” say that there is chemically no difference in the composition of industrially created nitrates and naturally formed nitrates. In effect, a nitrate is a nitrate is a nitrate.
So in answer to the question of whether or not nitrates are safe, I would have to say that they definitely are safe, possibly even beneficial.
Part 2 – Is it Easy or Realistic to Avoid Nitrates?
In my opinion, given the Paleo ideology of avoiding all processed foods, and added chemicals, I would say that it is more in line with “orthodox Paleo” (if there is such a thing), to avoid products with added nitrates, whether they are naturally occurring from celery powder, or industrially created. The onus here is on the fact that purists believe that whether the nitrates are natural or not, is eclipsed by the fact that they are not normally found in bacon or other meat products, and therefore should not be included in the Paleo diet.
However, in real life, whether or not to buy nitrate free bacon is really a question of price and availability. If a person either cannot find nitrate-free bacon in their vicinity, or cannot afford the additional cost of buying it locally and/or having it shipped, pretty much any bacon is better than no bacon at all. Even though bacon is in essence processed meat, it is fundamentally still easily identifiable slices of a larger piece of meat, which automatically places it way above similar sausages or deli-meats, in terms of Paleo acceptability. Even the curing process is something that has been practiced for generations, and usually involves “soaking” the raw bacon in either a salt-water solution, or in plain dry salt. I see no problem with that personally, and therefore see no real benefit in going out of my way to locate and purchase un-cured bacon.
Of course, pastured Bacon is a different story, because at that point we are talking about the more favorable amount of omega-3 fatty acids present in the pastured meat. Obviously, if you can find locally pastured pigs in your area, and you can afford the additional premium, buy it and enjoy it. If it also happens to be uncured and nitrate free, then that’s a bonus.
If you feel an unstoppable need to avoid nitrates in your diet, or have an aversion to the possibility of consuming cured bacon and tarnishing your perfectly orthodox Paleo lifestyle, then by all means go for it. Otherwise, just buy whatever bacon tastes the best to you, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Being able to freely eat large quantities of Bacon is one of the reasons that so many people become attracted to low-carb, Paleo and Primal diets in the first place. Let’s not spoil the fun.
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Barry Cripps is a Paleo-based Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, who operates out of Bowling Green, Kentucky.
For more information please visit: www.undergroundnutritionist.com