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Are nitrates in food and water good or bad?

Nitrates are used to lower blood pressure and help heart conditions. We look at nitrates in food and in water, and explain what benefits they can have on you.

What if you were told that a few simple dietary changes could help reduce your risk of high blood pressure and the associated risks to your heart health, such as heart attacks and stroke?1

Nitrates are compounds which are found in naturally in some of the foods you eat. Dietary nitrates have been linked with helping to increase blood flow to the whole body.

Better blood flow has a range of benefits for you including good cardiovascular health, muscle recovery, brain health and even sexual function.

The effect of nitrate-rich plant based foods on the cardiovascular system has only relatively recently become a research focus by scientists and researchers but results so far have been promising.

What are nitrates?

Nitrates are used to widen your blood vessels.

Sometimes referred to as vasodilators, nitrates come in a variety of forms including, tablets sprays, skin patches.

They work by relaxing your blood vessels, which lets more blood pass through them. This can lower blood pressure and may relive any heart pain you might be experiencing.

There are some mild side effects including:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Flushed skin

There are three types of nitrates, they include:

  1. Nitrate oxide

Nitric oxide is a compound found in the body that helps blood vessels to widen and stimulate the release of certain hormones, such as insulin and human growth hormone.

The two most common nitric oxide supplements are L-arginine and L-citrulline, which are both amino acids you can obtain as part of a balanced diet.

L-arginine is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein which is naturally found in red meat, dairy products, poultry and fish. It's produced in pill, powder and cream form.

L-citrulline is found in meat, nuts, legumes and watermelon. It is normally manufactured as a pill or powder.

  1. Isosorbide mononitrate

Isosorbide mononitrate is used to help chest pain such as angina and other heart conditions. Again, this medication helps widen the blood vessels which allows the blood to flow.

Isosorbide mononitrate is not intended to be taken right before physical activities such as exercise or sexual intercourse to prevent chest pain.2

  1. Sodium nitrate

Sodium nitrate is a kind of salt that has historically been used to preserve foods. It can be found in many cured meat and fish based foods, such as:

7 nitrate oxide foods

  1. Bacon
  2. Beef jerky
  3. Ham
  4. Hot dogs
  5. Lunch meat
  6. Salami
  7. Smoked

It has a distinct flavor, controls fat oxidation and acts as an antimicrobial.3

Nitrates can also be found in leafy green vegetables but this is not thought to react in the same way as to those found in red meat.

Where do nitrates come from?

Your body won’t make sufficient amounts of nitrates on its own, but by consuming a range of healthy foods containing dietary nitrate your body will create nitric oxide, which is the substance that is thought to aid with vasodilation - the process of relaxing and widening the arteries to promote increased blood flow.

Your body makes nitric oxide with the help of your ‘good’ bacteria that exists in a healthy gut and mouth, so being in good health may help aid this process.

How can they help my blood flow?

Nitrates from plant-based foods such as beetroot, celery and spinach in your diet could help increase oxygen efficiency within your cells.

This means that they help maintain the optimum levels of oxygen within red blood cells and help oxygen delivery throughout the body.

Nitrates aid with vasodilation and may allow for easier widening of your arteries and could aid with the prevention of blood clot formation, which can increase risk of heart disease.

Most significantly, nitric oxide has been shown in some studies to aid with lowering blood pressure nitrates can also help you improve your athletic performance by helping the heart pump blood to where it’s needed.4

Nitrates help the red blood cells deliver oxygen and nutrients more efficiently to your muscles, which reduces fatigue and increases performance and stamina.

One study from 2014 based on seven people showed that eating nitrate-rich fruits and vegetables over a 6-day period improved exercise performance, including using energy more efficiently during exercise, reducing muscle fatigue and improving sprint performance.5

Handpicked content: How nitro fatty acids can lead to better heart health

Which foods contain healthy levels?

Nitrates are found in foods such as dark leafy vegetables including spinach and kale, as well as root vegetables such as radishes and beetroot, which has been shown to significantly increase in nitrates in the blood.5

One study based on the participants drinking beetroot juice has shown that the juice can potentially lower blood pressure.6

Soil contains nitrate, so the nitrate levels in your vegetables depends on how they were grown. Food grown in organic soils contain more nitrate than non-organically grown food.

Although the nitrate levels found in dark green leafy vegetables are very beneficial to your health nitrates from processed meat sources do not possess the same benefits.

Nitrites vs nitrates

Nitrates and nitrites are two different types of compound. Nitrates (NO3) consist of one nitrogen atom with three oxygen atoms. Nitrites (NO2) consist of one nitrogen atom and two oxygen atoms.

Nitrates are fairly inactive, meaning they stay stable and are unlikely to change and cause harm.

Are nitrates good or bad?

As nitrates are reasonably inactive, they are unlikely to change rapidly. However, when they change into bacteria from enzymes in the mouth they are considered bad.

Yet, when they turn into nitric oxide they can be considered beneficial for your body.

10 side effects of nitrates

There are 10 common side effects of nitrates, which include:

  1. Headache
  2. Dizziness
  3. Light-headedness
  4. Nausea
  5. Flushing
  6. Burning and tingling under the tongue
  7. Low blood pressure
  8. Skin irritation
  9. Itching
  10. Topical allergic reactions may also occur with the topical patch form

As with any new supplement that you may be taking, if your discomfort persists and you begin to feel concerned, you should speak to your GP or a health professional.

Nitrates in water

It is possible for nitrates to occur naturally on the surface and groundwater, however it is generally at a level that does not cause any health problems.8

What is nitrate testing?

A nitrate test is a chemical test used to determine the presence of nitrate ion in solution.

When to take nitrate supplements

Ordinarily, you would be prescribed nitrate supplements from your GP or health professional.

Are nitrate supplements safe for everyone?

Nitrate supplements are considered generally safe when taken in the suggested amounts.

You should always follow the directions on the label when taking supplements.

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 11 August 2021

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