When it comes to sodium nitrite dangers we first need to clarify which compound we refer to because there are two closely related compounds; Sodium Nitrite (NaNO2) and Sodium Nitrate (NaNO3). Sodium nitrate is a natural compound found in leafy green vegetables. Food companies use both sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate in food to preserve color in many types of smoked fish and processed meats.
Sodium Nitrite Dangers
Sodium nitrite serves a twofold purpose in the food industry since it preserves the color of meat and fish and also prevents growth of the bacteria which causes botulism. Sodium Nitrite has an E number of E250.
While this compound prevents growth of the botulism bacteria, it can be toxic for mammals. Because of this, sodium nitrite sold as a food additive is dyed bright pink to prevent confusion. This has earned it the name “pink salt” in some circles.
Sodium nitrite dangers are well researched by scientists. Sodium nitrite is a known toxin. In the 1970s, the USDA tried to ban it but was vetoed by food companies because they had no alternative to preserve meat products. Why is it still used? Because this compound turns meats bright red. This makes old meat look fresh.
The major concerns is the formation of cancer causing N-nitrosamines when sodium nitrite reacts with amino acids in a warm, acidic environment like the stomach. These compounds enter the blood stream and damage several organs like the liver and pancreas. Sodium nitrite may also trigger migraines.
Research has also found a link between high processed meat consumption and colon cancer, possibly due to preservatives such as sodium nitrite.
Recent studies also indicate people who often eat meats cured with nitrites have increased risk of the COPD form of lung disease. Many years ago, I was requested to mix this compound with water to be used in sausages at my work. Inhaling the fumes almost caused my death because it closed my airway.
Because of sodium nitrite dangers, use of sodium nitrite is closely regulated in the US, and concentration is limited to 200 ppm.
Sodium Nitrate in Food
Sodium nitrate is found naturally in leafy green vegetables and has antimicrobial properties when used as a food preservative. Sodium nitrate shouldn’t be confused with the related compound, sodium nitrite.
This post is part of our Food Additives to Avoid series.