Nitrates and nitrites occur naturally in plant foods as part of the nitrogen cycle between air, land and water environments.
Most of our dietary exposure to nitrates and nitrites is through fruit and vegetables. Eating fruit and vegetables is widely recommended due to the strong evidence of beneficial health effects against a range of diseases.
Nitrates and nitrites have also been used as food additives in cured meats and some cheeses for many years, primarily to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum. Adding nitrites or nitrates improves the microbiological safety of these foods and extends their safe shelf life.
In the past, some concerns have been raised about possible health risks associated with nitrates and nitrites in foods.
To estimate Australians' dietary exposure to nitrates and nitrites, and to determine whether there are any risks to human health at current dietary exposure levels, FSANZ funded a coordinated analytical survey for both nitrates and nitrites in Australian foods and beverages. The survey examined nitrate and nitrite concentrations in 52 foods including fruit and vegetables and processed foods.
The major sources of estimated nitrate dietary exposures across different population groups were vegetables (42-78%) and fruits (including juices) (11-30%). Vegetables (44-57%) and fruits (including juices) (20-38%) were also the major contributors to estimated dietary nitrite exposures across the population groups. Processed meats account for less than 10% of total dietary exposure to nitrites.
Australian consumers should be reassured that exposures to nitrates and nitrites in foods are not considered to represent an appreciable health and safety risk. Rather, the health benefits of fruit and vegetables are widely accepted, and eating these foods is recommended as part of a balanced diet.