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Sodium nitrite (E 250): use & risks

by Josephine Andrews

Sodium nitrite is listed as a food additive under the European approval number E 250 . This substance is the sodium salt of nitrous acid. In the food sector, it is used, among other things, to preserve meat and sausage products. However, it can also form in vegetables containing nitrate. Find out interesting facts about the origin, use and dangers of sodium nitrite here.

Sodium nitrite – what is it?

Sodium nitrite is manufactured for industrial use as a preservative. It is also listed as E 250 on the list of ingredients for foods and is a crystalline substance that is colorless to slightly yellowish. It is a component of pickling salt, for example.

Nitrites such as sodium nitrite also occur in nature. They are an intermediate product in the nitrogen metabolism of plants. In particular, various types of vegetables such as rocket, lettuce or spinach cover their nitrogen requirements via nitrate. Through enzymatic or microbiological mechanisms, this nitrate, which is harmless for adults, can turn into nitrite that is dangerous.

Nitrites can also form in the event of improper storage or transport or poor hygiene practice. Nitrite accumulates primarily in the water-bearing parts of the plants, i.e. in the stalks, panicles and outer leaves.

How does sodium nitrite work?

Preserving food with potassium and sodium nitrite is one of the most important ways to protect against poisoning by the Clostridium botulinum bacterium . The sodium nitrite inhibits its growth. However, nitrite curing salt is also often added to meat products because it gives a nice red color and a specific aroma.

Sodium nitrite is very limited and only approved for certain foods. In principle, it is also permitted in organic foods. However, there are some manufacturers who voluntarily do not use E 250.

Sodium nitrite is commonly found as a synthetic preservative in the following foods:

  • cured meat products such as cured pork belly
  • Duck/Goose Liver Pate
  • Wurst

In addition, nitrites/sodium nitrite can also be found in these products:

  • Kohlrabi
  • Spinach
  • Rocket and lettuce
  • Rotate Bete
  • Drinking water

Sodium nitrite – is it a concern?

The ADI value (acceptable daily intake = the amount of a substance that a person can ingest over a lifetime without any health risk) for sodium nitrite is set at 0.06 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For a person weighing 70 kilograms, this corresponds to around 30 to 35 grams of raw ham (residual nitrite content 150 mg/kg).

The value is so low because nitrites such as sodium nitrite can change the red blood pigment hemoglobin in such a way that it no longer transports oxygen. Although adults have an enzyme that reverses this process, it is not yet sufficiently developed in infants. You can suffocate from too much nitrite dose. Although you would hardly feed a baby salted meat, bacteria also produce nitrites in vegetables containing nitrate. That’s why you shouldn’t reheat spinach, for example. This is because the microorganisms contained in it begin to stimulate nitrite formation.

If you heat sodium nitrite, for example when roasting and grilling cured food, it can interact with protein building blocks, the so-called amines, to form nitrosamines, which animal experiments have shown to be carcinogenic.

Bacteria in the mouth and stomach can also produce nitrite from the nitrate in drinking water, of which there is always a small amount in the groundwater through the biogenic breakdown of nitrogen compounds. However, it only becomes a concern if levels of 25 milligrams per liter are exceeded, which is the case, for example, if additional nitrate gets into the drinking water via )sewage pipes and intensive fertilization (slurry).

Consequently, a large part of the nitrite load in the human body does not come from cured food, but from vegetables, leaf salads, mineral water or one’s own metabolism. If you want to reduce your intake, you should remove the stalks, veins and outer leaves of nitrate-containing vegetables and store the respective foods properly. If possible, you should buy outdoor vegetables, as exposure to light and fresh air reduce the nitrate content in the plants.

By the way, if you grow your own, you should harvest in the evening. This is because the nitrate content and thus the risk of excessive formation of nitrites such as sodium nitrite is lower due to the light radiation during the day.

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