Difference between Nitrate and Nitrite


Nitrate and nitrite are the naturally occurring ions that are part of the nitrogen cycle. These are used interchangeably due to their similar pronunciation and spelling. Both of them are inorganic compounds composed of oxygen and nitrogen. 

In general, naturally occurring nitrate levels in groundwater and surface are a few milligrams per liter. If considered with many groundwaters, we can observe an increase of nitrate levels because of the intensification of farming practice. Also, the concentrations can reach several hundred milligrams per liter. In a few of the countries, up to 10% of the population may be exposed to nitrate levels of above 50 mg/l in drinking water.

It is said that vegetables will be the main source of nitrate intake for humans when drinking water levels are below 10 mg/l. The time when the concentration of nitrate in drinking water exceeds 50 mg/l, then the drinking water will be the primary source of total nitrate intake.

Effects of Nitrate and Nitrite when They Enter The Environment

Naturally, nitrogen exists in soils, typically bound to mineral soil material and organic matter. The available forms of nitrogen, including nitrite and nitrate, are present in water, soils, plants, and meat products.

Nitrate and nitrite are found naturally in igneous and volcanic rocks. Also, salts of these naturally occurring ions completely dissolve in water.

Bacteria present in plants and soils use oxygen to change the nitrite into more stable nitrate, which is converted back to nitrite by other bacterial forms when there is a lack of oxygen. Nitrogen-containing fertilizers and animal wastes increase the concentration of nitrate in the environment.

Structures of Nitrate and Nitrite

Both nitrate and nitrite are interchangeably used because they have similarities in their spelling and pronunciation. Both of them are inorganic compounds composed of oxygen and nitrogen. The difference in the shape, structure, and function depends on the number of oxygen atoms they bring out. Nitrates have one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms, where nitrites have one nitrogen and two oxygen atoms.


Anion is a conjugate base of nitric acid, containing a central nitrogen atom surrounded by three identically oxygen atoms bonded in a trigonal planar arrangement where the nitrate ion is carried by a formal charge of −1. This charge results from the combination of the formal charge in which each of the three oxygens carries a − 2⁄3 charge, while the nitrogen carries a +1 charge, all of which add up to the formal charge of the polyatomic nitrate ion. This arrangement is also seen as a resonance example.

Similar to the isoelectronic carbonate ion, nitrate ions can be indicated by the resonance structures.

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Nitrite ion contains a symmetrical structure (C2v symmetry), with both N–O bonds having equal length and bond angle of 115°. According to the valence bond theory, it is described as the resonance hybrid with equal contributions from two canonical forms, which are mirror images of each other. In a molecular orbital theory, there consists of a sigma bond between each nitrogen and oxygen atom, and a delocalized pi bond is made from the ‘p’ orbitals on both oxygen and nitrogen atoms, which is perpendicular to the molecule plane. The negative ion charge is distributed equally on the two oxygen atoms. Since both oxygen and nitrogen atoms carry a lone pair of electrons, the nitrite ion is a Lewis base.

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If we think about what is the difference between nitrate and nitrite, the significant ones that one can remember are tabulated below.

Differences Between Nitrite and Nitrate



Nitrate is an organic polyatomic ion carrying a ‘-1’ charge, made of one Nitrogen and 3 Oxygen atoms.

Nitrite is an inorganic polyatomic ion carrying a ‘-1’ charge, made of one Nitrogen and two Oxygen atoms.

The oxidation number in Nitrogen is ‘+5.’

The oxidation number in Nitrogen is ‘+3.’

They have a trigonal planar geometry.

They have a bent molecular geometry.

Nitrates formed from nitric acid is a strong acid.

Nitrates formed from nitric acid is a weak acid.

Nitrates can be reduced to form nitrites.

Nitrites can be oxidized to form nitrates.

Can be used in fertilizers and explosives.

Can be used in food preservatives.

Effect of Nitrate and Nitrite on Children

Children can experience similar effects as adults when overexposed to nitrate or nitrite.

Young infants who are less than six months of age appeared to be particularly sensitive to nitrite effects on hemoglobin after consuming the formula prepared with drinking water that contained nitrate at levels higher than recommended limits, and some of these infants died.

Still, it is not disclosed whether nitrate or nitrite can cause birth defects. Few studies suggest that intake of relatively high levels of nitrite or nitrate could cause developmental effects, but at the same time, other studies found no evidence for this.

For such reasons, it is highly recommended not to use the food or water products on the children, especially before six months of age because they encounter severe further health problems or they may affect them immediately.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. How acceptable are nitrate and nitrite to cause cancer?

There is minimal evidence that nitrite can cause specific gastrointestinal tract cancer in humans and mice. The International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) has noted that the presence of nitrite and some kinds of amines or amides in the acidic environment of the stomach may result in the production of N-nitroso cancer-causing compounds. Under these conditions, IARC has determined that ingested nitrate and nitrite are probably carcinogenic to humans. The EPA did not classify nitrate or nitrite as carcinogenic.

As we can perform many things with our bodies, there is also a lot tending more complexity than we assume.

Even though moderation in every angle is a wise idea, eating foods that are little processed and cooking using fresh vegetables and having organic and seasonal fruits over most other things is good. Also, the legit protein can include some healthy ones like eggs, chia, and more that should consider.

2. Compared to Nitrate and Nitrite, which is worse?

Concerning the technical aspects, nitrites are worse. Because nitrates are converted to nitrites by bacteria found in our mouth and elsewhere, the difference between nitrite and nitrate is largely irrelevant.

And only the nitrites themselves are the problem, but rather because they react in the stomach with the amines found in food, particularly proteins to form nitrosamines, which are carcinogens that can cause cancer. Also, nitrites can react directly with amines at higher temperatures, as when you are frying bacon.

Nitrites are added to processed foods as preservatives to inhibit bacteria and to maintain color, including deadly botulism. Also, nitrates may help in treating problems like diabetes, heart disease, and erectile dysfunction when they convert in the body to nitric oxide, and it's complicated too.

Naturally, nitrates and nitrites are found in vegetables. They pick up the former from soil, and bacteria and convert them into the latter. Celery, beets, spinach, and carrots are rich in nitrites and nitrates. In fact, few packaged types of meat claiming "No added nitrites" actually use celery juice as a preservative meaning that they do indeed contain nitrites, and we can find the same on the label.

Europeans, who consume less nitrate/nitrite processed food than Americans, are estimated to be able to get as much as 80% of these compounds from vegetables.

While certain nitrates/nitrites in vegetables are likely to be far less dangerous than those found with meat, vegetables have much fewer proteins to react with nitrites in the form of other poisonous nitrosamines or should not be cooked at such high temperatures.