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We live in an information age where words can reach every inch of the globe within seconds. It doesn't take much for someone with credentials to start a rumor. The media loves to report on any health related study that blasts a harmless substance, no matter how bogus or what ulterior motives may exist. Headlines like these are attention-grabbers and that's what it's all about. But when the stories pan out false, the media is very slow or non-existent with the rebuttal.

Look at the bad wrap eggs received over 20 years ago. The medical profession and the public still haven't fully accepted the fact that eggs don't raise cholesterol levels and are, in fact, very good for you. No one knows how many brain-development and eye problems have resulted from this misinformation.

A few years ago researchers began saying that the nitrates in our food and drinking water were dangerous because they could cause methaemoglobinaemia (MHB) or "blue baby" syndrome, stomach cancer, and birth defects. Bureaucrats accepted these assertions and put regulations in place that required the removal of nitrates from our food and drinking water. With this goal accomplished, it is only logical to ask if the number of stomach cancers, blue babies, and birth defects have been reduced. You guessed it. No.

Follow-up studies have failed to show that nitrates were the culprits to begin with. No birth defects or stomach cancers have been attributed to nitrates and other factors have been cited as probable causes of blue baby syndrome. It now appears that by eliminating nitrates from our food and water supplies, we might be increasing the number of food poisoning and gastrointestinal problems we experience.

Theory versus Reality

The theory behind the nitrate scare was based on the fact that microbes in a person's mouth change nitrate into nitrite. Researchers theorized that the nitrite would subsequently react with digested protein compounds in the stomach and produce cancer-causing nitrosamines. It was an interesting theory with only one drawback. It was wrong. Subsequent observation revealed that the anticipated reaction never happened. Unfortunately, the theory had already received widespread publication. The public was deathly afraid of nitrates in drinking water and nitrates used to preserve cured meats.

Since then, research has shown that the oral conversion of nitrate into nitrite might actually be essential for preventing bacterial poisoning in the stomach and intestinal tract. Apparently our mouths contain certain microbes that reside in crevices toward the back of our tongues, whose job is to convert nitrate into nitrite. In fact, if you don't get enough nitrates from your food and water, your body will secrete nitrate into your saliva.

Once nitrate is converted to nitrite in the mouth, it goes to the stomach. There, strong stomach acids break it down into several compounds, one of which is nitric oxide. (Br J Nutr 99;81(5):349-58)

Nitric oxide and the other resulting compounds kill off harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Escherichia coli, two of our most dangerous sources of food poisoning. Not surprisingly, ever since we've been eliminating nitrate from our food and water, food poisonings have been steadily increasing in number and severity. Infections from the bacteria Helicobacter pylori have also been increasing, and have been identified as the cause of stomach ulcers. Nitrite deficiencies might be a big part of the problem.

We know that nitric oxide is essential for the relaxation of blood vessels and proper blood platelet function. This fact probably explains an interesting anomaly. Individuals who work in fertilizer factories that produce ammonium nitrate have lower rates of respiratory and heart disease than the population in general, and have no greater risk of stomach cancer.

As for nitrates being the cause of blue baby syndrome (MHB), researchers are beginning to question that assumption also. Apparently, MHB generally occurs when infants are given water from private wells that, in addition to containing nitrates, also contain high levels of certain kinds of bacteria. These bacteria cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, which is the main component of MHB.  These facts about nitrates have been known for some time now, but have had no effect on the general fear of nitrates in this country. 


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