Nitrates and Homemade Baby Foods

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I am interested in making my own homemade baby foods, but my sister told me that it is dangerous because of the risk of nitrates in baby food. What are nitrates? Can I still make my own baby food?

Well, while your sister is sort of right in that you do need to understand what nitrates are and how they can harm your baby, she is not correct that you can not make your own baby food because of them. Here's the skinny on what you need to know about homemade baby foods and nitrates.

What Are Nitrates?

Nitrates are a chemical that can be found in water and soil. They do occur naturally as a plant breaks down nitrogen during photosynthesis, though they are also known to be commercially made and used in the preparation of some foods. Nitrates are most commonly found in these types of food and drink:

  • Green leafy vegetables.
  • Root vegetables.
  • Groundwater from wells. Parents preparing infant formula from well water should speak with their pediatrician about safety.
  • Cured meats. Cured meat products (think ham, hot dogs, bacon, etc), can be cured with naturally occurring plant-based nitrates or with chemically created nitrates.

How Nitrates Can Be Harmful to Your Baby

In simplest terms, ingesting excessive amounts of nitrates can negatively affect the blood counts of your baby. The big medical term you might read for it is methemoglobinemia. Babies suffering from methemoglobinemia will show periodic blueing of the mouth, hands, and feet. Additionally, babies may become more tired than usual or have trouble breathing. Extreme cases can cause loss of consciousness or even death. In light of that, it is important to know safety measures when feeding your baby homemade baby food.

Who Is Most at Risk for Nitrate Poisoning?

What research has shown is that the people most at risk for nitrate poisoning are people who consume well water. Water should be tested for nitrate levels. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that doctors should discuss water supply with parents. Families who use well water for drinking or formula preparation should test their water for nitrates. The AAP recommends that nitrate levels should be less than 10 ppm.

Babies who are under 3 months of age are particularly susceptible to methemoglobinemia. The next at-risk group is babies 3 to 6 months old. After 6 months of age, babies' stomach acids have further developed and they are less at risk for problems caused by excessive consumption of nitrates.

AAP Suggestions for Homemade Baby Foods

In 2005, the American Academy of Pediatrics released their advisory for homemade baby food. They stated, "Infants fed commercially prepared infant foods generally are not at risk of nitrate poisoning. However, home-prepared infant foods from vegetables (eg, spinach, beets, green beans, squash, carrots) should be avoided until infants are 3 months or older, although there is no nutritional indication to add complementary foods to the diet of the healthy term infant before 4 to 6 months of age."

Tip: If you are using fresh vegetables, prepare your baby food when the veggies are as fresh as possible. The longer they sit, the more nitrates build up. Alternatively, use frozen fruits and veggies, which are often frozen just after harvesting and more fresh than the vegetables you buy at the store.

Are Commercially Prepared Baby Foods Nitrate-Free?

Do not be misled into thinking that commercially prepared baby foods must be nitrate free. That is not the case. Nitrates occur naturally in veggies. However, store-bought foods have likely been screened by the manufacturer to be within a certain standard. However, screening is not mandated by law, and companies police those levels independently.

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