Hot Dogs & Sodium Nitrate

tacar/iStock/Getty Images

Meat preservatives have been used for hundreds of years as a means to extend the meat's shelf life by preventing bacteria from growing. While salt was previously used to cure and preserve meats, nitrates -- also known as nitrates -- have been targeted as the main part of salt that helps to preserve meats. Sodium nitrate is found in a common American food -- hot dogs.

Sodium Nitrate Action

Curing is a process that involves adding spices, salt and nitrite along with heat to meats. During this process, nitrite converts to nitric oxide, which binds with myoglobin, a red pigment that gives hot dogs their characteristic pink over time. The United States Department of Agriculture issued meat inspection regulations for local and state inspectors that specify the amount of nitrites that can be used on hot dogs, since adding too much is toxic.


Adding nitrates is a beneficial process for hot dogs because nitrates block the growth of bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes and botulism. They also keep meat from spoiling over time. Nitrates also add flavor to hot dogs, although it is possible to purchase uncured meats.


Consuming foods cured with nitrates had been previously linked with increased risk for cancer. A 1973 study presented at the Meat Industry Research Conference titled "Uncertainties about Nitrosamine Formation in and From Foods" and a 1974 study published in the "Journal of Foods Science" discovered that nitrates break down in hot dogs and other meats and bind with proteins to form nitrosamines, a compound known to cause cancer in animals. However, the amount was negligible, and found to be higher in meats that had been burned or charred. To test for nitrite’s safety, the National Toxicology Program performed a multi-year study on the safety of nitrates added to foods and concluded that nitrates were safe for use and necessary to prevent illnesses like botulism.

Creating a Balance

Because sodium nitrates have been linked with causing inflammation, the United States Department of Agriculture requires hot dog manufacturers add anti-inflammatory substances known as antioxidants. Antioxidants, like vitamin C, are added to minimize or neutralize the inflammatory effects of nitrates. You can accomplish a similar effect by eating antioxidant-packed diced tomatoes or fortified orange juice with your hot dog, according to the "Real Simple" magazine.