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Topic summary contributed by volunteer(s): Joan and Priyanka

Nitric oxide is naturally produced in our body by the endothelial cells lining the arteries. It acts as a potent vasodilator that relaxes the arteries, playing a critical role in blood pressure and overall circulation.

One of the most confusing compounds in nutrition is nitrites, which are associated with both the carcinogenic effects of processed meat, and the beneficial blood vessel-dilating power of certain vegetables. The answer to this seeming contradiction is our body’s ability to process nitrates.

The Healthy Route to Nitrite Processing

Certain vegetables contain nitrates, which break down into nitrites when eaten. Nitrites are necessary and life-enhancing, providing the nitric oxide we need to keep our blood vessels dilated, and minimize risk of high blood pressure.  Studies have shown that nitrites packaged in vegetables can improve oxygen efficiency and delivery by dilating blood vessels, resulting in:

The Unhealthy Route to Nitrite Processing

If nitrites are so beneficial, how can they be so harmful when consumed in meat? The answer is not in the nitrites themselves, but in how they can be converted, under certain circumstances, into nitrosamines—recognized as one of the most potent carcinogens in the world.

Research is now clarifying that nitrosamines are formed when nitrites are consumed in the absence of plants, because phytonutrients found in all plants block nitrosamine formation. Because meat contains none of these plant phytonutrients, when nitrites are added to meat as preservatives and colorings, nitrosamines form in processed meat.

Dangers of Nitrosamine-Laced Foods

Hundreds of studies have shown the link between cancer and the nitrosamines contained in cured meats, like bologna, bacon, ham, sausage and hot dogs. These cancers include: bladder, endometrial, prostate, thyroid, testicular, kidney, and leukemia.

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