What is Sodium Nitrite?

Adam Hill

Sodium nitrite is a chemical compound which is used principally as an additive in meats and other foods. It has properties that preserve color and freshness, especially in processed meats. In its pure state, it is a white or yellowish powder, with a texture somewhat like salt. It is considered a salt in the chemical sense, meaning that it is composed of positively charged ions of a metal -- sodium -- and negatively charged non-metal ions -- nitrite.

Sodium nitrate has been linked to migraines in those with a history of them.
Sodium nitrate has been linked to migraines in those with a history of them.

There are at least three purposes accomplished by the addition of sodium nitrite to certain food products. The first is the preservation of color. Sodium nitrite preserves the red color of meats and some types of fish so that they remain red even if they are cooked while being processed.

Sodium nitrite maintains freshness in cured meats.
Sodium nitrite maintains freshness in cured meats.

Another purpose is to inhibit the growth of the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. This species of microorganism is highly dangerous when it is present in food products, because it produces a neurotoxin which causes a set of symptoms in humans known as botulism. These symptoms include muscular paralysis, which can lead to respiratory failure and death.

Sodium nitrite may function as a bronchodilator in the treatment of asthma.
Sodium nitrite may function as a bronchodilator in the treatment of asthma.

Sodium nitrite, because of how it is used in the process of curing meats, also maintains freshness overall by slowing the development of rancid flavors or odors in the food it is used to treat. It also has other applications outside of food preparation. In medicine, proper doses of sodium nitrite can function as a bronchodilator, an intestinal relaxant, and even as an antidote to some poisons such as cyanide and hydrogen sulfide. It has also been used to dilate blood vessels and to treat certain lung disorders in infants.

As with any other chemical preservative, sodium nitrite has come under considerable scrutiny as its safety has been questioned. Certain laboratory studies have found links between large amounts of sodium nitrite consumption and a higher incidence of certain cancers. It has also been linked to migraine headaches in those who have a history of suffering from them. However, this chemical is also produced by our own bodies, and some say we make more of it than we consume. This is an important point to consider, since it plays a vital role in maintaining stomach health, specifically controlling the growth of bacteria that could otherwise lead to gastroenteritis.

The carcinogenic tendencies of sodium nitrite can be controlled or prevented by the addition of vitamin C to cured meats. Even so, some recommend that children and women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid any unnecessary intake of sodium nitrite. Like many controversial chemicals, it has not been conclusively proven to be a health hazard for humans in the amounts people are usually exposed to.

Some researchers have linked sodium nitrite consumption to migraine headaches.
Some researchers have linked sodium nitrite consumption to migraine headaches.

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Discussion Comments


I've heard all the claims put against sodium nitrate but I'm not going to worry about it too much. I think it's USDA's job to worry about if and how much sodium nitrate should be in my cold cuts. And I believe they have restrictions on it.

It's not like these companies can do whatever they want with their products. Plus, there are plenty of organic nitrate-free meat products out there if people want. We have to accept that processed meats is a huge part of the American diet. How many Americans are going to throw out their bacon and hot dogs?

And just as the article says here, vitamin C helps protect from any negative effects of sodium nitrate. So just have your orange juice or vitamin C supplement and enjoy those sausage patties.


I just read this article which argues that we consume more sodium nitrate than we think. I knew that it was in processed meats to preserve its freshness and color. But apparently, there is also sodium nitrate in other foods, even fruits and vegetables because of fertilizer. Fertilizers with nitrogen end up as sodium nitrate in produce! I don't know how much proof is out there but it is certainly something that most people have not heard of.

I used to think that since I consume a lot of fruits and vegetables (vitamin C), I wouldn't have to worry about the sodium nitrate in processed meats. But I guess in order for that to be true, I need to be consuming organic produce.

I'm also disappointed that I have to randomly run into such vital information about what I eat everyday. What is the world coming to?


It's a very interesting substance. Sodium nitrite, present in salami and other cured meats, is helpful to people who have brain oxygen problems such as dementia, heart issues -- and there's even a study where the researchers are trying to use sodium nitrite to help people live longer by, as the researcher jokes, "turn people's organs into hot dogs". Sounds gross, but really, if they can find the magical amount (where less does nothing and more is cancerous) - that 'just right' amount could help preserve our muscle tissues, feed the brain necessary oxygen, etc.

Too much oxygen is bad, too little is bad. tiny bits of sodium nitrite open the blood vessels - viagra's popularity should produce a large population to use for a future study to see if there is a link between viagra and cancer.

I think the increased brain cancer in children who eat too many hot dogs might be due to the blood vessels opening up via the nitrites, which allows too much oxygen to flow into the brain - and too much oxygen (along with the "preserving" process happening when the person is too young) causes the growing cells to keep growing, never dying - and we know that a cell that divides and never dies *is* cancer. Gotta find that magic balance and our lifespans will increase, cancer free. Ken, Naples, FL

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