Nitrite and nitrate are naturally occurring molecules in vegetables and also added to cured and processed meats to delay spoilage and pathogenic bacteria growth. Research over the past 15 years has led to a paradigm change in our ideas about health effects of both nitrite and nitrate. Whereas, historically nitrite and nitrate were considered harmful food additives and listed as probable human carcinogens under conditions where endogenous nitrosation could take place, they are now considered by some as indispensible nutrients essential for cardiovascular health by promoting nitric oxide (NO) production. We provide an update to the literature and knowledge base concerning their safety. Most nitrite and nitrate exposure comes from naturally occurring and endogenous sources and part of the cell signaling effects of NO involve nitrosation. Nitrosation must now be considered broadly in terms of both S- and N-nitrosated species, since S-nitrosation is kinetically favored. Protein S-nitrosation is a significant part of the role of NO in cellular signal transduction and is involved in critical aspects of cardiovascular health. A critical review of the animal toxicology literature of nitrite indicates that in the absence of co-administration of a carcinogenic nitrosamine precursor, there is no evidence for carcinogenesis. Newly published prospective epidemiological cohort studies indicate that there is no association between estimated intake of nitrite and nitrate in the diet and stomach cancer. This new and growing body of evidence calls for a reconsideration of nitrite and nitrate safety.
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