Nitrate consumption during pregnancy

I know that while pregnant you should generally avoid foods that contain nitrates, such as hot dogs and luncheon meats. But is it safe to eat them in small amounts?


Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

In recent years, the level of nitrates contained in processed foods has decreased, and is considered safe for pregnant women. In fact, nitrates are used as a preservative in meats, often making the meat safer than it would be otherwise, from a bacterial safety standpoint. However, I would suggest that you avoid them whenever possible, as foods containing nitrates, such as preserved meats like hot dogs and bacon, are not good nutritional choices for pregnant women because of their high sodium and fat content.

On the other hand, nitrates in food are a danger in that they can be converted to nitrites, which can react in your stomach to form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are potent cancer-causing chemicals. Generally nitrates are most dangerous when they are converted to nitrites prior to ingestion, which happens during the cooking process. Nitrites form under conditions of extreme heat, such as frying. Therefore, if you choose to eat nitrate-containing foods, do so in a manner that minimizes the conversion. For example, you will want to avoid using bacon dripping for cooking, or frying processed ham. It just makes sense to avoid exposure to any potentially cancer-causing compounds whenever possible, but most certainly when you are pregnant.

Although nitrates in some foods may not be a problem, high levels of nitrates in well water can be. Consuming well water contaminated with nitrates, chemicals or bacteria is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and young infants. There has been some evidence that well water contaminated with high levels of nitrates has caused miscarriages in some women.

Contaminated well water should also not be used to make baby formula as it can lead to a condition know as methemoglobinemia. This occurs when the nitrates, converted to nitrites in the intestine of the baby, are absorbed into the bloodstream. There they link up with hemoglobin, the pigment in red blood cells that transports oxygen. The combination forms methemoglobin, a pigment that cannot carry oxygen to the tissues. Infants under four months of age do not have enough of an enzyme necessary to convert the methemoglobin back to hemoglobin. When methemoglobin levels rise too high, the baby becomes cyanotic and may turn blue. It is a potentially serious condition, that left untreated can lead to cyanosis and death. As the baby becomes older, his stomach acidity increases to a level that will help prevent the conversion of nitrates to nitrites, thus reducing the danger.

If you are unsure as to the safety of your water (shallow, rural wells are most susceptible to the contamination) you can have it tested, or you can use bottled water.

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