I want to start making my own baby food, but I've read that the nitrates in some vegetables—beets, carrots, turnips, spinach—are too high in nitrates and can be dangerous. Is this true? Should I be worried?
Making your own baby food is a great way to provide great nutrition for your baby while saving money. Here's what you need to know about nitrates in your baby's veggies:
Where Nitrates Come From
Nitrates are naturally occurring elements in soil. They're chemical compounds that contain nitrogen and oxygen. Plants need both in order to thrive: Microorganisms in the soil convert the nitrogen into nitrates. The nitrates are then able to promote growth and photosynthesis. So, plants need the nitrates, but when there is an excess amount in the soil—more than the plants can use—it can build up and leach into groundwater, which can cause contamination. Much of the excessive buildup occurs from contamination by fertilizers, which contain nitrates to rev up plant growth and size. (Organic farmers do not use these types of fertilizers.)
Why Too Many Nitrates are Dangerous
Once nitrates are ingested, the body can convert them to nitrites. The nitrites can then interfere with the hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying part of the red blood cell), disrupting its oxygen-carrying abilities. This disruption can lead to what is call hypoxemia, or low oxygen.
And in young babies, this problem is more acute: Under three months of age, an infant's gut (intestinal tract) is less acidic. This more alkaline state enables the conversion of nitrate to nitrite to happen quicker, leading to a rapid buildup—this can cause the hypoxic state. An extreme buildup can cause a potentially life-threatening condition called methemoglobinemia.
Nitrate buildup risks can happen in two ways; the first is from preparing formula from water sources that may be high in nitrates due to contamination. The second can be from foods high in nitrates. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), says, "Because vegetables, including green beans, carrots, squash, spinach and beets, can have nitrate levels as high or higher than that of well water, infants should not eat these foods until after age three months." (Read more about their views on nitrates here.)
When considering nitrate issues, keep these feeding guidelines in mind:
- If you are preparing formula with well water—have it tested
- Babies who are exclusively breastfed are not at risk for methemoglobinemia.
- Veggies should not be given to babies under 3 months of age. The AAP recommends waiting to start solid foods until about six months.
- Once Baby is eating solid food, choose organic produce when possible.