Nitrate occurs naturally in fruit and vegetables, and in small amounts is not harmful. Modern agricultural methods have, however, resulted in fresh produce absorbing excessive levels of nitrate.
Similarly, nitrites, which convert to nitrosamines, are used in the food industry for the curing of meats. “Meats with the highest nitrate levels would be those that are processed and preserved with nitrites (e.g. viennas, polony),” says Lila Bruk, a Johannesburg-based registered dietitian. “There is significant research linking these processed meats with having carcinogenic properties.”
Studies have shown that exposure to nitrates, nitrites and nitrosamines is associated with higher incidences of Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, while consumption of foods containing large amounts of nitrates or nitrites leads to higher incidences of several cancers.
Since South African regulation does not make provision for mandatory package labelling of nitrate and nitrite levels in food, food safety company Alvarita launched the world’s first portable nitrate and radiation detector in South Africa – GreenTest.
The compact, award-winning device tests nitrate levels in fruit, vegetables, meat and water – helping people to monitor their daily nitrate intake. This can be complemented by more informed food choices.
Fight disease with food
In light of Cancer Awareness Month, National Nutrition Week and World Diabetes Day, South Africans are urged to educate themselves in making healthier food choices. Some are as simple as choosing fruits with a lower sugar content.
“Generally, tropical fruits have a higher sugar content (e.g. pineapple, mango),” says Bruk. “However, if one keeps the portion size small (e.g. 3 x 1cm rings of pineapple), then they can be included in a diabetic’s diet.”
According to the International Diabetes Federation, there were 1,826,100 cases of diabetes reported in South Africa in 2017, while Stats SA has put diabetes as the second-biggest killer in SA after TB.
Eat more vegetables
With the advent of fad diets, the debate rages on about their respective health benefits. As far as nitrate and nitrite intake is concerned, Bruk makes a case for vegetarianism in the fight against disease.
“In theory, yes, a vegetarian diet would be better. It would limit the amount of nitrites one would usually consume from processed meat as well. Fruits and vegetables do also contain nitrates, so one should definitely monitor their nitrate intake.”
A diet high in antioxidants, vitamin C and other vitamins reduces the conversion of nitrates and nitrites to nitrosamines – known to be toxic and cancer-causing (carcinogenic).
Alvarita’s Damian Michael supports this notion of empowering consumers to make healthier food choices. “I want people to be armed with the knowledge they need to make the choice that’s right for them,” he says. “GreenTest takes just three seconds to measure the levels of toxins in your food, enabling consumers to make a choice right there and then.”
Nitrogen is the most commonly-used fertiliser, and today we are using almost 20 times more than we did 50 years ago. This is posing serious health threats. The GreenTest website identifies certain fruits and veg that are at higher risk of contamination with nitrates, and consumer are urged to avoid those with very thin skins (e.g. peaches), or no skins at all (e.g. strawberries, celery).
Organic produce is a popular and healthier alternative, if one is to avoid these harmful pesticides used in large-scale farming. Also, synthetic nitrates and nitrites are not allowed as preservatives in organic packaged foods and meats. However, since organic foods are more expensive, and beyond many people’s budgets, are there other (healthy) cost-saving options?
“Generally, choosing seasonal produce is cheaper than choosing those fruits and vegetables that are out of season,” Bruk adds. “In addition, fresh rather than frozen or tinned fresh produce has a lower nitrate content.”
The GreenTest device weighs just 30g and is equipped with a database of 64 of the most commonly consumed fruits and vegetables. GreenTest retails from R999, and the four different options available can be ordered from the Alvarita website.