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Why Nitrates in Food Are Not Bad | Plus 10 Foods High in Nitrates

You may have heard that you should go easy on processed meat products like hot dogs. Overall, that’s not bad advice. 

However, some foods high in nitrates offer some surprising benefits, like improved heart health

Your body needs dietary nitrates to can convert to nitric oxide, the “miracle molecule” vital to many bodily functions and protection from chronic disease.

So, which foods are high in nitrates and nitrites? What is the benefit of higher levels of nitric oxide in your system?


What Are Nitrates?

Nitrates are sometimes used as food additives or preservatives. They stop the growth of harmful bacteria and improve flavor.

Nitrates and nitrites are often used to prevent cured meat from turning brown; they help it stay red or pink.

However, our bodies also produce nitrates naturally. You can find a high concentration of nitrates in your saliva.


Nitrates vs. Nitrites

  • Nitrates contain one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms: NO3.

  • Nitrites contain one nitrogen atom and two oxygen atoms: NO2.

On their own, nitrates are inert — meaning they will not start a chemical reaction by themselves. But when they come in contact with certain bacteria and enzymes, they turn into nitrites.


Why Nitrates Are Bad

Some have claimed nitrates and nitrites link to cancer. This makes sense from a food safety point of view since eating a lot of processed meat (that are full of sodium nitrate) is linked to an increased risk of stomach cancer.

But nitrates and nitrites are also found in veggies, which are typically linked with a decreased risk of cancer.

In fact, nitrates are found in much larger concentrations in vegetables than processed meats, primarily due to nitrogen found in the soil or fertilizer. Organic vegetables may not contain the same amount of nitrates because synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are not permitted when farming organically.

Nitrates are really only a problem when cooking foods at very high temperatures. At that point, the nitrates may turn into nitrosamines, known to contribute to cancer growth.


High Nitrates in Water

In some areas, drinking water may contain large amounts of nitrates.

Unfortunately, infants under six months old have trouble processing nitrates.

Water high in nitrates may lead to methemoglobinemia, a dangerous blood disorder that can lead to blue baby syndrome, in infants. If that happens, the infant can’t get enough oxygen.

This shouldn’t be a problem for anyone over six months old. 


Benefits of Nitrates

While it’s not a good idea to eat a diet loaded with lots of cold cuts, processed meats, or meat cooked at high temperatures, the truth is that there are several health benefits to eating nutrient-dense foods high in nitrates:

  • Defense against pathogenic bacteria
  • Energy boost
  • Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease

Nitrates and nitrites convert to nitric oxide, which helps to dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure — this is arguably their greatest benefit.


What is Nitric Oxide?

Nitric oxide (NO) is a signaling molecule produced by your body. The groundbreaking discovery of this miracle molecule led to a Nobel Prize.

NO’s most hailed function is as a vasodilator. This means it causes your blood vessels to relax and dilate.

Vasodilation lowers blood pressure and allows red blood cells to more efficiently carry nutrients and oxygen throughout your body.

NO prevents basically all forms of cardiovascular disease because of its relaxing effect on blood vessels.

This more efficient cardiovascular system also leads to improved exercise performance.


How do I know if I need more nitric oxide?

Three things can negatively impact your nitric oxide levels. If any of these apply to you, it may be worthwhile to see what you can do to increase NO in your blood via supplements, diet, or lifestyle changes.



As we get older, our bodies produce less nitric oxide. As a result, it’s even more important that we take steps to help keep our NO levels optimal, like drinking beet juice.


Lack of exercise

Physical exercise helps the body to produce nitric oxide. If you’re not getting enough exercise, your body may not be making enough NO.

Research shows that aerobic exercise helps boost nitric oxide.

While this is true at any age, it becomes even more important as we age and NO levels decline. This can be as simple as going for a walk around the block, running, or biking.


Poor diet

If your diet is lacking in healthy levels of nitrates, your nitric oxide levels may be lacking. For instance, a diet short in vegetables and nutrient-dense proteins is likely to be low in nitrates.

Eat plenty of nitrate-rich foods like leafy green vegetables, healthy proteins, beetroot juice, citrus fruits, and foods with plentiful antioxidants.

Nitrate foods

How to Get More Nitric Oxide in Your Diet

Eating a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits with high nitrate concentrations can help your body’s production of nitric oxide.

Below are some tips on specific foods, antioxidants, and amino acids to be sure you incorporate into your diet. You can even include dark chocolate and red wine — enjoy a little decadence while getting the nutrients your body needs!


10 Foods High in Nitrates

What are foods that are high in nitrates? These 10 foods high in nitrates will send your nitric oxide levels soaring.

1. Beets

Because of their high nitrate content, beets, beetroot, and beet juice all provide a whole host of health benefits, like:

Juicing beets provides the best source of these benefits. Cooking or fermenting beets can diminish their ability to help lower blood pressure.


2. Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate has been around for 3,000 years. This popular treat contains flavonols. The flavonols help boost levels of nitric oxide in the body, which in turn helps improve blood flow, brain function, and prevent heart disease.

Research shows that dark chocolate can help improve NO levels and decrease blood pressure.


3. Garlic

Garlic can boost nitric oxide levels in your body. Fresh garlic can unlock these health benefits better than cooked garlic, or you can take a garlic supplement.


4. Leafy Green Vegetables

Leafy green veggies are loaded with nitrates.

Nitrate-rich vegetables convert to nitric oxide, reducing the risk of heart disease and neurodegenerative diseases.

Here are some plant foods highest in nitrates:

5. Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds are high in L-arginine, a key amino acid in nitric oxide production.

Eating nuts and seeds regularly helps you lower blood pressure, improve mental function and boost endurance.

They also contain necessary nutrients such as protein, fiber, vitamins, and polyphenols.

Plus, nuts and seeds lower inflammation in the body, which also helps preserve cardiovascular health.


6. Citrus Fruits

Citrus fruits like oranges, hawthorn berries, and lemons are high in vitamin C.

Vitamin C boosts your body’s levels of nitric oxide synthase, an enzyme that is needed to produce nitric oxide. Therefore, citrus boosts your body’s levels of nitric oxide.

These vitamin C-rich fruits have been linked to lowered blood pressure, lowered risk of heart disease, and improvement in brain health.


7. Pomegranate

Pomegranates pack a huge antioxidant punch. They also help the body to both produce and maintain levels of nitric oxide.

Studies indicate pomegranate can help improve blood flow and protect against cardiovascular conditions, like high blood pressure.


8. Watermelon

A delicious summer treat, eating watermelon is an easy way to earn higher levels of nitric oxide.

Watermelons are high in an amino acid known as L-citrulline, which then converts to L-arginine. L-arginine then converts to nitric oxide.

As a result, consuming watermelon can help to boost nitric oxide levels and improve blood flow. There’s even research that indicates watermelon may help with erectile dysfunction.


9. Red Wine

Many powerful antioxidants are found in red wine. Red wine also increases levels of nitric oxide in the body.

Because of this, red wine helps lower blood pressure and boost heart health.

It’s important to note that it is not the alcohol that causes this effect. Rather, it is the polyphenols that cause these health benefits.

Polyphenols are present in many plants. Polyphenols derive from the grapes that are essential to the wine-making process. Grapes are rich in natural antioxidants that boost your nitrate intake.


10. Meat, Poultry, and Seafood

Meat, poultry, and seafood contain the compound CoQ10, which helps the body maintain levels of nitric oxide. This compound also boosts athletic performance, prevents migraines, and promotes heart health.

As mentioned earlier, a diet high in processed meats — especially meats cooked at very high temperatures — comes with some disadvantages. Eat these nitrates in moderation, and consider buying organic proteins when possible to avoid synthetic nitrates.


Best Nitric Oxide Supplements

If you’re having trouble getting enough healthy nitrates in food, try taking a dietary supplement.

The two most common ingredients in these supplements include two amino acids that are critical to your body’s natural NO production.



L-arginine is an amino acid that helps dilate blood vessels once it’s converted to nitric oxide. It also plays an important role in releasing growth hormone and insulin in the body.

People take L-arginine to improve high blood pressure, other cardiovascular conditions, erectile dysfunction and wound healing.

L-arginine is found richly in red meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products.



Beneficial to heart health, L-citrulline is a nonessential amino acid, which means the human body can make it. Technically, it’s not a “necessary” dietary nutrient.

L-citrulline is converted to L-arginine by the kidneys. And, as noted above, L-arginine plays a key role in cardiovascular health and metabolism.

Key Points

  • Nitrates are found in larger quantities in vegetables, primarily due to nitrogen found in the soil.
  • Avoid poor sources of nitrates such as processed meats like lunch meat.
  • When nitrates come in contact with certain bacteria and enzymes, they turn into nitrites.
  • Eating a diet high in healthy foods that contain large amounts of nitrates is one of the best ways you can ensure that your body produces enough nitric oxide.
  • You can also take nitric oxide-boosting supplements to help make sure your body is producing the nitric oxide you need.

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