Nitrates and Homemade Baby Foods

A mother preparing food

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While there are likely some nitrates in baby foods made from root vegetables and leafy greens, homemade baby food does not pose a danger. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states: "Because the intake of naturally occurring nitrates from foods such as green beans, carrots, squash, spinach, and beets can be as high as or higher than that from well water, these foods should be avoided before three months of age."

What Are Nitrates?

Vegetables pick up nitrates from the soil they are grown in. Synthetic fertilizers can introduce nitrates into the soil, and some nitrates are produced naturally when bacteria in the soil break down certain components. While organic veggies might have lower traces of nitrates from synthetic fertilizer, they will still contain naturally occurring nitrates from the bacterial breakdown in the soil. Nitrates are also sometimes added to foods like bacon to preserve them. Nitrates are most commonly found in these types of food and drink:

  • Green leafy vegetables (notably, spinach)
  • 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 very young babies. The medical term for this 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 contaminated well water. Water should be tested for nitrate levels. The AAP advises that doctors 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. There is no known risk from breastfeeding, even if the mother is drinking well water with nitrates. The bacteria breastfeeding introduces into an infant's gut may be protective.

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. It stated, "Infants fed commercially prepared infant foods generally are not at risk of nitrate poisoning. However, home-prepared infant foods from vegetables (e.g., 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 four to six months of age." In other words, the AAP recommends that parents wait until four to six months of age to introduce solid foods to babies anyway.

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. Store-bought foods may have been screened by the manufacturer to be within a certain standard. However, screening is not mandated by law, and companies police those levels independently. In addition, if you're waiting until your baby is around 6 months old to introduce solids, and using the above strategies to minimize nitrates, this should be enough protection.

1 Source
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  1. Greer FR, Shannon M. Infant methemoglobinemia: the role of dietary nitrate in food and water. Pediatrics. 2005;116(3):784-6. doi:10.1542/peds.2005-1497

By Jennifer White
Jennifer White has authored parenting books and has worked in childcare and education fields for over 15 years.