Plants need nitrogen to grow, which comes mainly from nitrate. When there is more nitrate than plants can utilize, it can migrate in between rocks and soil and contaminate water sources. Other sources of contamination are human manure, sewage, and nitrogen-based fertilizers.
This is a concern for children especially infants younger than 3 months of age. At this young age, a bacteria in their gut converts nitrate into nitrite. Nitrite is the toxic substance; it interacts with hemoglobin and prevents oxygen from reaching body tissues, causing what is knows as “blue baby” disease. Although this condition is rare, the “starvation” of cells from oxygen could cause coma and death if not treated properly.
After 3 months of age, when the infant is ready for solid foods, the digestive system develops, the stomach becomes acidic (like older children and adults), and the bacteria that makes nitrites is destroyed by the acidity. For older children, nitrites can form cancer-causing substances.
Nitrates and nitrites are also found in smoked fish, cured and processed meat (sausage, hot dogs, and bacon come to my mind). I could not find any recommendations on serving these foods to children, but the heavy processing and the salt they contain are good reasons to choose more fresh meats.
How can nitrate make it through to your table?
- Well water. If you receive public water, nitrate levels are tested and you should not worry about it. If you have your own private water source, you need to check it yourself. Here’s the CDC’s link: http://www.nasdonline.org/document/1439/d001233/nitrates-in-household-water.html
- Some vegetables contain nitrates, but they also have ascorbic acid (vitamin C) that counteracts their effect. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that reduces the activity of cancer-causing substances and reduces the conversion of nitrate to nitrite. These vegetables are spinach, carrots, beets, celery, lettuce, broccoli, parsley, rhubarb, turnip greens, and melons.
That doesn’t mean that you should eliminate these foods from your baby’s diet. After all, by the time your he starts eating solids, his digestive system should be able to handle nitrate–it will actually be excreted. Here’s what you can do:
1. If your are bottle-feeding your baby and have your own private water source, bottled water might be safer–although they don’t contain the floride babies need for their teeth. Boiling and regular filters do not reduce nitrate content. The best way to solve nitrate contamination is prevention. If you are using a public water source, nitrate level is closely monitored and should not be a concern.
2. Commercial baby foods are monitored for nitrate level and they are considered safe.
3. If you want to make your infant’s food at home, buy these vegetables from local sources and refrigerate them as soon as possible. Another alternative is to buy them frozen. Freezing prevents nitrates from converting to nitrites.
Don’t let this concern stop you from exploring the beautiful world of vegetables with your baby!