Nitrates, a type of food additive commonly used in processed meats, have been linked to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, according to a new study published in the medical journal PLOS Medicine.

According to the researchers, some public health authorities have advocated for limiting the use of nitrites and nitrates as food additives in foods such as processed meats. However, until now, the role of nitrates and type 2 diabetes in humans remained unexplored. The researchers aimed to study these associations in a large population-based prospective cohort study, distinguishing foods and water-originated nitrites/nitrates from those from food additives.

In order to investigate the relationship between dietary exposure to nitrates and type 2 diabetes risk, researchers accessed data collected from 104,168 participants in the prospective cohort NutriNet-Santé. 

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The NutriNet-Santé study is an ongoing, web-based cohort study initiated in 2009 where participants aged 15 and older enroll voluntarily and self-report medical history, sociodemographic, diet, lifestyle, and major health updates. 

For the study, the researchers used detailed nitrate exposure, derived from several databases and sources, and then developed statistical models to analyze self-reported diet information with health outcomes.

The need to reduce food additives

This is the first large-scale cohort study to suggest a direct association between additives-originated nitrates and type 2 diabetes risk. The researchers found that participants in the NutriNet-Santé cohort reporting a higher intake of nitrates overall and specifically from food additives and non-additives sources had a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The findings did not support any potential benefits for dietary nitrates in terms of protection against type 2 diabetes. 

“These results provide a new piece of evidence in the context of current discussions regarding the need for a reduction of nitrite additives’ use in processed meats by the food industry, and could support the need for better regulation of soil contamination by fertilizers,” the researchers said in a statement. 

“In the meantime, several public health authorities worldwide already recommend citizens to limit their consumption of foods containing controversial additives, including sodium nitrite,” they added.

The researchers note that additional research is required to validate the results. The data was self-reported and the researchers could not confirm specific nitrate exposure using biomarkers due to the underlying biological challenges. 

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Additionally, people in the cohort’s demographics and behaviors may not mirror the rest of the population—the cohort included a greater number of younger individuals, more often women, who exhibited healthier behaviors. 

Health effects of processed meat

This new study adds to a growing body of research showing that eating processed meat poses health risks for humans. A study published recently in the American Medical Association’s medical journal JAMA Neurology shows evidence that ultra-processed foods (UPFs) such as processed meats are linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline

The study found that participants with a daily diet that comprised more than 19.9 percent UPFs experienced a 28 percent faster rate of global cognitive decline. And, notably, study participants who were younger than 60 years old were more likely to experience global cognitive decline compared to those aged 60 years or older who consumed similarly high levels of UPFs in their daily diet.

“A higher percentage of daily energy consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with cognitive decline among adults from an ethnically diverse sample,” the study concluded.

“These findings support current public health recommendations on limiting ultraprocessed food consumption because of their potential harm to cognitive function.”

Another study published earlier this year in the medical journal The BMJ found that high consumption of UPFs comes with an increased risk of colorectal cancer in men. Notably, the research from Tufts University and Harvard University found the strongest association between colorectal cancer and ultra-processed foods among men came from meat, poultry, and fish products.

Eating processed meat can also increase the risk of coronary heart disease, according to a study published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. The study, led by Oxford University researchers, concluded that daily consumption of just 50 grams of processed meats, such as bacon, ham, and sausage, increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 18 percent. Consuming 50 grams of  unprocessed meat, such as beef, lamb, or pork, increased risk by 9 percent. 

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Similarly, another study published last year in the journal Nature Food found that eating just one animal-based hot dog could cost consumers 36 minutes of healthy life. The study also found that while the greatest reduction in lifespan was attributed to hot dogs, burgers, breakfast sandwiches, and sugary drinks, conversely, plant-based foods such as fruits, cooked grains, ready-to-eat cereals, and non-starchy mixed vegetables resulted in the largest gains in lifespan.

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