Nitrates are naturally occurring compounds that are used throughout the food and agriculture industries as food preservatives and fertilizers. They are also present in groundwater, and even some vegetables have naturally occurring nitrites.
No doubt you’ve heard of nitrates — they have gained a reputation as a toxin that should be avoided, especially for babies. Infants who are exposed to high levels of nitrates, usually through contaminated well water, are at risk of serious health complications, including a condition called methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome. This condition affects how oxygen in the blood is carried to the rest of the body, and it can be life-threatening in some cases.
Because nitrates are used in agriculture and present in vegetables, you might be concerned that some nitrates have found their way into your baby’s food. But do you really have to worry about nitrate-contaminated baby food?
Does baby food contain nitrates?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), research is limited on the presence of nitrates in commercial baby foods. While commercially prepared baby foods containing vegetables most likely contain nitrates, these levels are monitored by manufacturers to ensure that nitrate levels in baby food meet safety standards. For this reason, the AAP has determined that babies who eat commercially prepared foods are not at risk of developing nitrate poisoning.
While commercially prepared infant foods are considered safe, parents should be cautious when preparing homemade baby food, especially baby food that contains vegetables. As a general rule, the AAP recommends that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months if possible, followed by the introduction of complementary foods along with breast milk until 12 months of age. Many parents, however, choose to introduce solid foods earlier. If you’re among them, the AAP advises avoiding giving your baby babies carrots, green beans, spinach, and other vegetables until your baby is at least 3 months old. This will help prevent babies from developing nitrate poisoning.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, August 2019
- Nitrates occur naturally in the environment and combine with organic and inorganic compounds.
- Nitrates occur in foods that have been processed and naturally occur in many vegetables.
- Infants who consume commercially prepared baby food are not at risk for nitrate poisoning, as these levels are monitored for safety by private industries.