The discovery of the nitric oxide (NO) pathway in the 1980s represented a critical advance in understanding cardiovascular disease, and today a number of human diseases are characterized by NO insufficiency. In the interim, recent biomedical research has demonstrated that NO can be modulated by the diet independent of its enzymatic synthesis from l-arginine, e.g., the consumption of nitrite- and nitrate-rich foods such as fruits, leafy vegetables, and cured meats along with antioxidants. Regular intake of nitrate-containing food such as green leafy vegetables may ensure that blood and tissue levels of nitrite and NO pools are maintained at a level sufficient to compensate for any disturbances in endogenous NO synthesis. However, some in the public perceive that dietary sources of nitrite and nitrate are harmful, and some epidemiological studies reveal a weak association between foods that contain nitrite and nitrate, namely cured and processed meats, and cancer. This paradigm needs revisiting in the face of undisputed health benefits of nitrite- and nitrate-enriched diets. This review will address and interpret the epidemiological data and discuss the risk-benefit evaluation of dietary nitrite and nitrate in the context of nitric oxide biology. The weak and inconclusive data on the cancer risk of nitrite, nitrate and processed meats are far outweighed by the health benefits of restoring NO homeostasis via dietary nitrite and nitrate. This risk/benefit balance should be a strong consideration before there are any suggestions for new regulatory or public health guidelines for dietary nitrite and nitrate exposures.
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