Myth: Americans Get The Most Nitrite From Cured Meats
When added to cured meats, nitrite plays a very important role in preventing the growth of Clostridium botulinum, which can cause the deadly disease botulism. Still, less than five percent of sodium nitrite intake comes from cured meats like ham, bacon and hot dogs. Ninety-three percent comes from vegetables like lettuce, spinach, celery, cabbage, beets and from human saliva.
In fact, research conducted during the last 20 years has uncovered the fact that the body makes nitrite as part of its healthy, normal nitrogen cycle. As a reference, consider that a spinach salad and a ham sandwich contribute the same amount of nitrite to the diet.
Some of the nitrate found in leafy green and root vegetables like spinach, beets, celery and lettuce is converted to nitrite when it comes into contact with human saliva. When it is swallowed, the nitrite becomes nitric oxide — an essential and critical compound used by the body to maintain normal blood pressure levels, fight infection and support the nervous system. Even naturally cured meat products contain nitrite because they use ingredients like celery juice/powder as a natural curing ingredient that are rich in naturally occurring nitrate and nitrite.
While some people question whether nitrite from vegetable or saliva sources is different from the nitrite that is added to cured meats, experts like Jeff Sindelar, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, say emphatically: "Where you receive it (nitrite) actually makes no difference because nitrite is nitrite. In other words, the nitrite derived from celery or other vegetables is exactly same as the nitrite found in cured meats."