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Food Additive Spotlight - Potassium Nitrate

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In our continuing look at the effects of food processing, today we look at a common additive that is also used in gunpower, matches, tv screens and ceramic glaze.  It gets very interesting when you heat it up.


Potassium nitrate (chemical formula KNO3) is a naturally occurring mineral source of nitrogen and it is present in nearly all vegetables. Common names include saltpeter, Chilean saltpetre, nitrate of potash and nitre.

Potassium nitrate is developed commercially by the reaction of potassium chloride with sodium nitrate. When potassium nitrate is heated, it decomposes. It is very soluble in hot water and somewhat soluble in cold water. It is used as a preservative against fading of natural colors. As a preservative it can be known as E252.


In foods, potassium nitrate is used as a preservative mainly in meats, but it may also be used in ice cream.


Potassium nitrate is considered "non-toxic" by the FDA and most people are not particularly sensitive to it and can handle it without problem. However, ingesting large quantities of potassium nitrate is not recommended. Evidence suggests that use of nitrates/nitrites in foods can cause cancer. Because of this, some countries have banned their use in food, and others are currently considering a ban. 

Tests show that heating protein in the presence of nitrate or nitrite (e.g. frying bacon) creates nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are carcinogenic. Use of nitrates/nitrites became popular in meat processing around the mid-1800s. During this time, demographic studies show a dramatic increase in colorectal cancer. In addition, it is believed that bacteria in the stomach can convert potassium nitrate into the more toxic potassium nitrite. 

According to the Hyperactive Children's Support Group (HACSG), potassium nitrate can cause dizziness and headaches, and it has recommended that the additive should be eliminated from children’s diets.


Potassium Nitrate has been used in the manufacture of gunpowder since the 12th century. It is used in explosives, fertilizers, fireworks and matches. As a fertilizer, it is used on such crops as celery, tomatoes, potatoes, leafy vegetables, and a few fruit crops.

It is also used in tobacco and the manufacturing of TV and computer screens. It is sometimes used in medicine as a diuretic.

Potassium nitrate is also used in tree stump remover and in the production of frits, which are applied as glazes on ceramic and metal bodies. Additionally, because of its low melting point and high thermal conductivity, potassium nitrate is used in salt baths for metal treatments and in formulations of heat transfer fluids.