Exposure to a group of chemicals called nitrites in food and water is linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS Medicine.
Nitrites are often part of, or the byproduct of, preservatives added to certain foods, including processed meats — foods like bacon, sausage, and lunch meats. Studies have shown that consuming processed meats is linked to a number of health risks, including a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, a higher overall death risk, and possibly a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Some of the health risks linked to processed meats may be due to nitrosamines, which form in a reaction with nitrites or nitrates (a related category of chemicals) from food additives. It’s widely believed that foods naturally high in nitrites — such as beets, cabbage, and carrots — don’t pose the same health risks as nitrites from food additives.
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For the latest study, researchers looked at the relationship between nitrite and nitrate consumption and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in a group of 104,168 French adults. The average age of participants was 42.7 at the beginning of the study, and they were followed for a median duration of 7.3 years. The participants completed detailed dietary recall surveys, which the researchers used to estimate their daily nitrite and nitrate consumption. A total of 969 participants developed type 2 diabetes during the follow-up period.
Higher nitrite consumption linked to increased type 2 diabetes risk
After adjusting for several factors known to affect the risk of developing type 2 diabetes — including factors related to participants’ social and income status, body measurements, lifestyle, medical history, and diet (other than nitrite or nitrate consumption) — the researchers found that participants in the top third of total nitrite consumption were 27% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared with the bottom third. Those with a higher level of nitrite consumption from food additives — above the median level for their sex — were 53% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those with no exposure to nitrites from food additives. There was no evidence of a link between total or additive-based nitrates (as opposed to nitrites) and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The researchers noted that since this was an observational study, it couldn’t demonstrate that nitrite consumption actually caused the higher risk for type 2 diabetes that they observed. It’s possible, for example, that certain other food components that are often seen in tandem with nitrites could have led to this increase risk. But there results do strongly suggest that a link between nitrites and diabetes exists — and since there weren’t any observed health benefits from higher nitrite or nitrate consumption, it’s probably a good idea to limit your intake of these chemicals.
“This study provides a new piece of evidence in the context of current debates about updating regulations to limit the use of nitrites as food additives,” the researchers wrote. “The results need to be replicated in other populations.”
Want to learn more about type 2 diabetes? Read “Diabetes Testing: Type 2 Diabetes,” “Type 2 Diabetes and a Healthy Family Lifestyle,” and “Welcome to Diabetes.”
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