Sodium nitrate is a common food additive that is used to preserve the color and freshness of the food. This article provides information on the adverse effects associated with its use.
The chemical compound sodium nitrate (NaNO3) is used as an ingredient in various industrial products. It is present in fertilizers, rocket propellants, smoke bombs, glass and pottery enamels, etc. It is commonly used as a food additive. It is present in processed foods, especially processed meats. Questions have been raised regarding the safety of this compound. In fact, some studies have called it a cancer-causing ingredient. Here is an overview of side effects associated with its use.
Sodium Nitrate as a Food Additive
The use of NaNO3 is common in food industry. It is commonly used as a food preservative. It is a yellowish powder, and looks like ordinary salt. Not only the freshness of the food but also the color of the food is preserved with the help of sodium nitrate. It is mainly used to preserve the red color of the meat or fish. It preserves the natural color of the meat, even though it is cooked during processing. This chemical compound helps prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum. The bacteria when present in food can cause food poisoning, thereby leading to botulism. Botulism can result in muscular paralysis, and may eventually lead to respiratory failure and death. Sodium nitrate delays the process of food turning rancid. In spite of all these helpful properties, ‘dangers of its usage’ has always been a topic for fierce debate.
Dangers of Sodium Nitrate
Some studies suggested that excessive consumption of NaNO3 through foods can lead to certain types of cancers like gastric cancer, esophageal cancer, colorectal cancer, colon cancer, etc. This chemical compound may trigger migraine headaches in people with migraine history. Increased number of deaths due to Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and Parkinson’s have been attributed to the increased use of NaNO3 in foods. Some researchers argue that sodium nitrate is responsible for damage to DNA, which in turn increases the risk of the aforementioned diseases.
But according to some other researchers, sodium nitrate does not cause cancer. It gets converted into sodium nitrite, when it is used as a curing agent. Researchers say that both ‘nitrate’ and ‘nitrite’ do not increase the risk for cancer. In fact, this element is naturally present in various fruits, grains, and vegetables. Everything that is grown in the soil, contains sodium nitrate. Nitrogen is naturally present in the atmosphere of the earth and we breathe it along with oxygen and carbon dioxide. When we eat fruits, grains, and vegetables, our body also converts sodium nitrate into sodium nitrite. So, the researchers concluded that nitrates and nitrites do not cause any harm.
Some researchers have endorsed the idea of consuming food rich in sodium nitrate, as they think that it might impede the growth of bacteria and preserves the freshness of the food. Food preservation methods are based on the fact that bacteria require oxygen and moisture to thrive. Food preservatives diminish the moisture, stop the supply of oxygen to bacteria, thus killing them at some point. The botulism bacteria needs an oxygen-free environment to survive. When it comes in contact with oxygen, it dies. Botulism bacteria can be present in canned, vacuum-packed foods, garlic or other foods stored in oil and improperly cured meats. NaNO3 has the exceptional ability to inhibit the growth of Clostridium botulinum.
As some scientists suspected that sodium nitrate can lead to cancer, it was a big shock initially. But, it was a result derived from experiments carried on rats in the lab, which were yet to be thoroughly investigated. No human cases were studied. Speculated stories of this compound being a cancer-inducing agent immediately received a lot of media attention. When further studies showed that sodium nitrate is harmless, the facts were accepted by the National Academy of Sciences. The American Cancer Society also was happy with the conclusions drawn. But when the National Research Council announced that sodium nitrate does not increase the risk of cancer, it received very less media attention.
You might be surprised to know that NaNO3 is also used to treat various serious medical conditions. It is used to lower the effects of dangerous poisons like cyanide and hydrogen sulfide. It is used to treat certain lung disorders in newborn babies, as it promotes dilation of blood vessels. In a similar way, it is used as an intestinal relaxant.
While determining the benefits and side effects of any given substance, you need to go through the pros and cons, study reports thoroughly, and then draw conclusions. More research is required to make people believe that they should not be afraid of the dangers of this chemical compound. However, you can always use natural preservatives like salt or sugar to be on a safer side.