Nitr-itious: Media Scares & Questions to Ask

It is time for us to unlearn what we have learned and look at evidence with open eyes, rather than minds clouded with stereotypes and bias.  You don’t have to agree with everything you see (even here); that is the point.  Learn to question instead of follow blindly.  You might just learn something that you never realized could be true; and crush a few harmful pre-conceived beliefs in the process.  This isn’t the day and age of poor little Virginia; seeing something printed in the paper doesn’t necessarily and automatically make it true. 

In 1981, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the scientific literature and found no link between nitrates or nitrites and human cancers, or evidence to even suggest that they’re carcinogenic. Since then, more than 50 studies and multiple international scientific bodies have investigated a possible link between nitrates and cancers and mortality in humans and found no association.

What may be more surprising to learn is that scientific evidence has been building for years that nitrates are actually good for us, that nitrite is produced by our own body in greater amounts than is eaten in food, and that it has a number of essential biological functions, including in healthy immune and cardiovascular systems. Nitrite is appearing so beneficial, it’s even being studied as potential treatments for health problems such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, sickle cell disease and circulatory problems.


While it’s popularly believed that nitrates and nitrites mostly come from processed meats, they’re actually a very small source of our nitrite intakes, less than 5-10%. And nitrates aren’t present at all in commercially processed meats.

Nitrates occur naturally in vegetables and plants as a result of the nitrogen cycle where nitrogen is fixed by bacteria. Dietary studies around the world have found 70% (in UK) to over 97% (New Zealand) of human consumption of nitrates and nitrites comes from vegetables alone, regardless of organic or conventionally grown. On average, about 93% of the nitrites we get each day comes from the nitrates in vegetables.


So, hotdogs and processed meats are condemned as junk food because they contain nitrates, which they don’t, while vegetables are declared health food because they’re free from the same chemicals, which they’re not.It may be awhile before people will get to the point of calling bacon and hotdogs health food.


Despite what’s still popularly believed, there is no evidence that nitrate or nitrite cause cancers in animals. And there is no evidence to indicate that nitrite or nitrate ingestion is carcinogenic in humans, either. Numerous international studies have attempted, unsuccessfully, to find any consistent or causative links between cancers or congenital malformations and nitrates or nitrites in food and water. “The majority of the studies revealed no correlation, or in some cases a negative correlation,” according to Dr. Speijers.


The above quotes (emphasis mine) are taken from one of the newest posts over at Junkfood Science.  The topic at hand:  The truth about nitrates; in particular the nitrates found (and feared) in processed foods such as hot dogs.  Turns out that not only are processed meats NOT the items with the highest levels of nitrates (vegetables hold that dubious honor); but it looks like nitrates have NO link to cancer, as is feared.

Most of us know that the media thrives on high-impact crisis-style health concern stories.  “Media scares” abound in this day and age and it is nice to see some of the actual “science” behind these scares put into real terms.  If you don’t already question every crisis the media tries to shove down our throats; then Junkfood Science is a great place to go and start to get an appreciation for just how easy it is for shady research and barely tenable (or non-existent) correlations to turn into wide-spread panic thanks to over-zealous journalists or reporters. 

Sometimes we can just laugh at some of the connections that the media makes and tries to put before us as the newest little health-guised panic; too smart to accept what can only be a silly concept invented for those “Slow News” days.  Other times, the human fear of getting old or getting fat or being unhealthy overwhelms our natural ability to question these panics and we blindly accept whatever scary health-crisis has taken over the media’s focused attention.  We make the panic even worse when we in the public repeat what we’ve heard; worsening even the media’s take on things; in a bad spiraling version of the “telephone game”. 

My point here is that we should always be questioning the latest and “greatest” health concern the media is harping on.  As intelligent and curious animals, we should not be blindly accepting of so much in the news.  Things get skewed.  There are mistakes in research, mistakes in understanding and mistakes in reporting.  Anywhere along the line of information there can be an error that leads to a wrongful panic.  We’ve seen it happen more than once.  The news will report some sort of huge new health crisis.  People will panic and try to find “cures” or “solutions”.  Then it comes out that the panic was really unfounded.  Sometimes we learn that the opposite of what was portrayed is actually true.

So my advice is to start (or continue) taking these scares with a grain of salt.  Approach each of them calmly instead of falling into the usual panic that the news media tries to whip up.  Ask questions:  How did they get those numbers?  Who did the research?  What was the actual result of the study?  Were incorrect conclusions drawn?  Has a tiny correlation been blown out of proportion?  Do they have more than anecdotal evidence?  Will we just find out in 3 years that actually the opposite is true?

Since I was curious I spent some time looking up some of the media-hyped health scares (and snake-oil style cures) we’ve heard about.  We’ve gone through eggs going from neutral food to cholesterol nightmare to beneficial part of a complete breakfast.  We’ve watched as first butter was vilified and then glorified compared to margarine.  Here are just a few of the things we’ve been told to include in our daily regime of panic.  I’ve included links when possible.

Salt: (Media claims run that too much salt causes high blood pressure, leading to heart attacks and strokes, calling for low-salt diets)

  • “…there is no credible evidence low-salt diets can help prevent heart disease, high blood pressure or premature death. Nor is there any sound evidence to support fears that we’re eating too much salt and that high salt diets increase our risks for cardiovascular disease and deaths. Nor can we assume that putting everyone on low-salt diets “can’t hurt” and are benign. In fact, the medical research suggests the very opposite.”
  • Low Salt Diets have shown no tenable relation to blood pressure.
  • Sea Salt vs Table Salt: Despite claims that one is better than the other they are both THE SAME as far as nutritional value.

Sugar: (We all know that anything sweet is “Bad” for our weight.  Cookies go right to your hips; cake to your thighs, etc)

Water: (Use it to detox?  Drink at least 8 glasses a day?  You can never have too much!)

  • Not the best “cure-all” detox; too much water can be just as dangerous as not enough.
  • Oh, and the requirement we all KNOW (8 glasses of 8 oz, everyday) has never been scientifically proved to be more than a centuries old, vital-ism based adage; akin to the sort of thing pushed by many a snake-oil salesman. (In other words, not based in actual science and only as affective as you believe it to be.)

Exercise: (Popular belief runs that Americans are increasingly lazy, with prescriptions of rigorous activity the only solution)

  • “Researchers from Maastricht University in The Netherlands and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland found that actual measures of energy expenditure of adults in the United States and Europe show no evidence of a decline over time. “
  • Over-exercising can have worse risks than a more sedentary or moderately active life.
  • Rather than focus on prescribing frenzied activity only for “overweight” persons; the focus should be on increasing good rates of healthy activities for EVERYONE. We do just as big a dis-service to naturally thin folks by assuming them healthy as we do by judging fat folks as unhealthy.

Obesity: (Media sources all point to the SURGE in obesity rates and many of the horrible health risks associated with being “overweight”; listing bariatric surgeries and drastic diets/lifestyle changes as the only way to combat this horror)

  • BMI (Body Mass Index) is a Big Fat Lie.  Not only have the very arbitrary cut-off points been recently lowered, rendering “overweight” entire groups of people who were “normal” the night before; this basic measurement does NOTHING to actually reflect the amount of fat in a person’s body.
  • The “Obesity Paradox” (That fat people live longer than thin people; that fat might be more beneficial than believed) is only a paradox for running contrary to popular opinion; not for its basis in fact.  Many of the “health risks” linked to obesity (as a risk factor) are in fact tenuous links at best, made based on specifically funded and poorly handled research.  Recent studies actually show that fat can be beneficial.
  • Bariatric surgery is an “option” so riddled with risks that are rarely brought to light.  “By having bariatric surgery a woman increases her risk of dying 45-fold.”


The important thing is to not stop questioning.

~ Albert Einstein


2 thoughts on “Nitr-itious: Media Scares & Questions to Ask

  1. Melissa ~ I think that is the point though; that we should not be taking any of the conclusions drawn as given gold without asking our OWN questions and viewing the studies.

    I do find that Sandy’s conclusions regarding sugar are valid though and not flimsy. I think it is important to see just how tenuous are the connections that media sources will make, based on very slight or non-existant findings in studies.

    That is why I blog though; trying to find other research and answers to what we already think we “know”. 🙂

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