Dr. Greene’s Answer:
Carrots and Nitrates. Really?
Not a problem at 6 months.
Parents are often told that it is not safe to feed your baby carrots, spinach, beets, turnips, or collard greens that you make at home: skip the root vegetables and leafy greens, give them what comes in a jar. I disagree!
It’s time to put this myth to rest. The kind of nitrate poisoning of concern is a rare form of anemia called methemoglobinemia.
The symptoms are obvious: the baby’s skin has a bluish tinge. There has only been one reported case of a baby with nitrate poisoning from homeprepared vegetable foods in the United States. In 1973. It was a young baby boy who drank too much contaminated carrot juice.
Moreover, commercial baby foods in the United States can also contain high levels of nitrates—and it’s not just the roots and greens.
Methemoglobinemia in babies is almost always caused by drinking infant formula, not by eating homemade baby food. This can happen when the formula is made with water (usually well water) contaminated by nitrates from synthetic fertilizer runoff from conventional, chemical farming.
Breastfeeding is safe from nitrates, even if mothers drink this water.
Beyond this, breastfeeding is protective. The predominant beneficial bacteria in the digestive systems of breastfed babies protects against methemoglobinemia even if the baby is exposed to nitrates.
The official AAP guidelines on nitrates say: “Home-prepared infant foods from vegetables (e.g., spinach, beets, green beans, squash, carrots) should be avoided until infants are 3 months or older.” (Emphasis mine).
I wish these guidelines were more widely repeated.
Nitrates are mostly a risk to the lingering fetal blood cells that are gone by around three months of age. By six months, the stomach acidifies, and the risk plummets further.
To avoid any nitrate problems in your baby, I suggest that you do the following:
- Don’t mix formula with well water, unless it is known to have low nitrates.
- Avoid feeding your baby commercial or homemade vegetables before three months.
- Choose organic vegetables (see “Reap the Benefits of Green,” in Feeding Baby Green).
- Use or freeze opened or homemade baby food within twenty-four hours. Refrigerator storage can increase nitrates.