Nitrates can be a scary topic, especially since media coverage has begun to show this type of preservative in a bad light. Countries across the UK and EU even have proposed bans on artificial or man-made nitrates from being added into food products.
Despite the negative attention that nitrates have received as of late, there is no research to show that the amount of nitrates in our food causes any adverse effects during pregnancy. Additionally, there is no official recommendation to avoid them- whether pregnant or otherwise.
Nitrates are more than meets the eye. Between man-made nitrates and natural ones, are there any heath differences? Should I opt only for nitrate-free products? I will guide you through the science behind what nitrates are, where you can find them, and if nitrate-containing foods should be limited or avoided.
Are Nitrates Safe in Food During Pregnancy?
Contrary to popular belief, nitrates are not always added to foods. Nitrates are also naturally found in water and soil. Naturally occurring nitrates can be found in fruits, vegetables, and drinking water.
Even sea salt can contain nitrates from the water where it was harvested. In fact, around 80% of nitrates in our diets come from these ‘natural nitrates’ (source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition).
Some processed foods, particularly meats, have added nitrates to help preserve freshness as part of the curing process. Sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate are the most commonly added nitrates in foods today. More recently, added nitrates have been a source of concern.
Nitrates produce nitrosamine compounds in the body and there is some research to suggest that nitrates increase the risk of certain cancers. High intake of nitrates can also cause limit the ability of blood to carry oxygen, a condition known as methemoglobinemia (source: NIH).
Several studies have shown that typical maternal nitrate consumption was not associated with birth defects or an increased risk of methemoglobinemia, however (source: Nutrition Journal, Environmental Health).
While all of this sounds alarming, the FDA has strict guidelines on how much nitrate is allowed in foods (source: FDA). There is also no conclusive evidence to show that the amount of nitrates in the foods we eat is even enough to increase health risks, including for pregnant women or their unborn babies.
For this reason, there is no official recommendation to avoid nitrates during pregnancy and nitrate-containing foods are still considered safe to eat.
Is Nitrate-Free Food Better For Pregnant Women?
Many women (pregnant or not) opt for nitrate-free food. What might surprise you is that labels claiming to be ‘no added nitrates’ can still contain naturally occurring nitrates even if they were added during processing.
Natural (yet added) nitrates in meats often come from celery, which is high in natural nitrates. Beet powder is another routinely chosen natural nitrate. Its vibrant red color also helps processed meat products look fresher and more appealing to the eye. Meats with celery or other natural nitrates added will often be labeled as ‘uncured.’
None of these options is healthier than the rest, whether man-made, added natural nitrates, or naturally occurring in that particular food. The body does not know the difference between where the nitrates came from.
As I mentioned earlier, most of the nitrates in our diets come from fruits, vegetables, and drinking water. The amount of nitrates in these foods is thought to be safe, including during pregnancy, so there is no reason to avoid these foods.
Of course, when the choice is available to you, it is also harmless to choose nitrate-free or no added nitrate versions of your favorite foods. Keep in mind that foods labeled ‘no added nitrate’ or ‘nitrate free’ are not necessarily any healthier than their nitrate-containing counterparts.
No added nitrate foods may even contain higher amounts of nitrates, albeit in the form of natural nitrates.
Common Foods Containing Nitrates During Pregnancy
Aside from nitrates that are found in fruits, vegetables, and water, meats are another common source of these compounds. Added to preservice freshness and limit bacterial growth, nitrates in meat can come from either natural sources or be man-made.
I will break down some common nitrate-containing meats, which nitrates are commonly used, and any considerations to take when eating them.
- Nitrates: sodium nitrate, celery powder, beet powder, salt
- Considerations: Be sure to thoroughly cook all hot dogs for safety, even if they are labeled as ‘pre-cooked,’ as hot dogs can carry Listeria.
We have a dedicated article all about hot dogs during pregnancy here.
Deli Meat/Lunch Meat
- Nitrates: sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, celery powder
- Considerations: All deli meats should be served steaming hot, even those on cold sandwiches. Just like hot dogs, lunch meats are notorious for Listeria.
If you plan to visit a sub shop or restaurant that serves deli meat sandwiches, you might also be interested in our article on Subway. We also have an in-depth guide to deli meats during pregnancy, too.
- Nitrates: sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, celery powder, salt
- Considerations: Dried sausages, such as summer sausages and other cured meats, tend to be higher in nitrates because of the processing methods used to keep them fresh for long periods of time.
Because these products are made with ground meats it is especially important that they are heated thoroughly before eating to ensure any bacteria have been killed off.
- Nitrates: sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, celery powder, salt
- Considerations: Following the theme, bacon is only safe during pregnancy if it is fully cooked. Like deli meats, this includes bacon on sandwiches.
Read our complete guide to eating bacon when pregnant here.
It is worth mentioning that many added nitrate-containing foods are often advised to be eaten in moderation. These foods are typically high in saturated fat and sodium, both of which most adults are advised to limit in order to be heart-healthy.
Of course, there is no need to eliminate cured or uncured meats from your diet (during pregnancy or otherwise), as enjoying them in moderation is sufficient to lower your intake of nitrates, saturated fats, and salt altogether.
What Does it Mean if I Have High Nitrates in my Urine during Pregnancy?
Sometimes women are told they have a high concentration of nitrates in their urine during pregnancy. It is natural to wonder whether diet has anything to do with this and if having nitrates in your urine is a sign that you are eating too much of them.
Nitrates in your urine are a sign of something else entirely- a UTI (urinary tract infection). When you have a UTI, the bacteria in your urinary tract produce nitrates and so testing for the presence of nitrates in urine is one way to detect a UTI (source: American Family Physician).
If your urine tests positive for nitrates have a conversation with your medical provider about the next steps, which can include additional testing and/or medication.
Nitrates are found in more than just processed meats, including produce and drinking water. Both natural and man-made nitrates are considered safe to eat during pregnancy, though some common nitrate-containing foods are best enjoyed in moderation.