Nitrates in Your Baby's Diet
Q: I feed my infant homemade baby foods. My friend said to be careful because some vegetables contain high amounts of nitrates. What are nitrates and which veggies contain them?

A: Nitrates are chemicals made up of nitrogen and oxygen. The presence of nitrates in soil is necessary for plant growth which is why they are in commercial fertilizers. As a result, nitrates, which are potentially hazardous to infants, can be found in certain vegetables, including fresh spinach, carrots, collard greens, turnips, and beets. (Most adults have higher levels of stomach acid and will not experience a health risk from consuming these vegetables).

The problem with high levels of nitrates in a baby's diet is that it interferes with the red blood cells' ability to carry oxygen (a type of anemia) throughout the body. This condition can lead to "blue baby syndrome". Symptoms include bluish discoloration of the skin and mouth, shortness of breath and fatigue. This could eventually lead to other health problems, but there is currently not enough evidence to draw firm conclusions.

When it comes to commercially prepared baby foods, there have been no documented cases in the United States or Canada they have caused health problems. This may be due to the careful and consistent handling and processing of commercial foods which may reduce the health risk.

It's also important to keep in mind that soil nitrates can contaminate water supplies, creating a potential health concern. High levels of nitrates in water are commonly found in wells located near fertilized farm fields. Regulatory agencies recommend the limit for nitrate in drinking water is 10 mg/L. Municipal water supplies are tested for nitrates to ensure that they are within recommended limits. Water with high nitrate levels should not be used for preparing infant formula or food. In addition, nursing and pregnant women should not consume water high in nitrate levels.