Are Nitrates Paleo Friendly?


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.

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3 Responses to Are Nitrates Paleo Friendly?

  1. Brian Cormack Carr September 14, 2011 at 8:09 am

    Great post, Barry. The nitrate question is one that I’ve had regarding bacon in the past. Kind of ironic, given that I’m also in the habit of downing a pint of blended green veggies every day!

    I wonder if it was Stephan Guyenet who raised the issue of quantities of nitrates in bacon vs. veggies? He wrote about it here too:

  2. Paul Rawlinson September 14, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Hey Barry, My beef (?) with this is 3 things:
    Most industrially prepared bacon contains so much more than just nitrates. For that reason I see most shop bought bacon as a processed food. Home cured is all good

    Sure nitrates are naturally occurring, but so is sugar. Adding it to our food doesn’t naturally make it better, especially when it is not necessary. Nitrates occur as part of the curing process, but are only added to enhance the pink colour of the meat. I’m sure you might have words to say if sugar was added. After all, Glucose is glucose right?

    Also, Nitrates when cooked (especially to the point of ‘crispiness’ in bacon) lead to numerous carcinogenic compounds. This happens in all food that is crisped/burnt, but by adding nitrates we’re just adding to that load

    I don’t avoid bacon itself, but I avoid commercially produced food with additives. In that context I see most packaged bacon as processed food.

    • Barry Cripps September 14, 2011 at 4:04 pm

      Hi Paul!

      Firstly I’d like to thank you sincerely for all of the energy that you expend by regularly arguing with me. I feel blessed. :-)

      Most store bought Bacon is cured with water, salt, sugar, Sodium Ascorbate (which is a form of Vitamin C, to help counteract Nitrosamines), Sodium Phosphate (Another form of salt), Sodium Nitrate (we covered this one), and often Sodium Erythorbate (which is to help speed up the breakdown from Nitrate into Nitric Oxide, and also to prevent the further breakdown into Nitrosamines).

      Here’s a link to the nutritional information on Oscar Mayer Hardwood Smoked Bacon, which is a pretty average industrially produced Bacon:

      Nitrates don’t illicit an insulin response, or contribute to blood-glucose spikes, or cause oxidative damage, or Acute Glycated End Products etc etc. It’s hardly fair to compare Nitrates to Sugar. Speaking of sugar though, sugar is often used in the “curing” process of the bacon, but it’s certainly not in a large enough amount that I’m at all worried about it. If a person was eating several pounds a day of sugar-cured bacon, it could easily be an issue, but I can’t imagine anyone does that.

      The “Carcinogenic compounds” you speak of are called Nitrosamines. Whether they are truly carcinogenic or not is in question. Nitrosamines are formed by cooking foods at high temperatures….all foods….not just Bacon…..even some vegetable form Nitrosamines in the stomach. I have yet to find anything conclusive on the “Carcinogenic” effects of Nitrosamines, so if you find something credible, let me know.

      I would never say that Bacon is perfect Paleo food, because it’s far from what I would call an optimal meat, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that damn bad either. Remember that most of the reason that Paleo makes us so healthy is because of what we DON’T eat, not what we do eat.

      You have to remember that not all of us live on a farm in New Zealand, with the access to the foods that you do.

      You always have your opinion Paul, and it seldom agrees with mine. I would call Bacon a “minimally processed food”. ;-)