That Nitrate Thing

carrots.jpgToday, Sara Cabot of Little Lettice offers a primer on “that nitrate thing” - the issue of when it's safe to present vegetables such as spinach and carrots to babies. Sara also includes a spinach, zucchini, and potato recipe for babies and toddlers.

“Carrots, beets, and spinach are some of the first veggies to be in season on our Massachusetts farms. When cooked lightly or steamed, these veggies can be very palatable and delicious for our young children. They’re full of great vitamins as well!

However, moms with young babies just starting out on baby food ask me all the time about “that nitrate thing” with these vegetables. What these moms mean is something called blue baby syndrome, which can be caused by nitrates being turned into nitrites in the baby’s stomach. I never knew about this when my kids were babies, and so it never stopped me from giving them carrots at 6-7 months and broccoli and spinach around 8 months. But we are so unsure of our food systems nowadays – spinach scares, tomato scares – that we consumers have to find out the facts for ourselves. This is what I found out:

1. The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) 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 3 months of age."

At around the age of 3 months your baby starts to produce more hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which fights the bacteria that turns nitrates into the potentially damaging nitrites. In the US, we don’t even start to give our babies solids until 4-6 months so we should be OK. However, because nitrate levels specifically in spinach can increase depending on storage, the AAP recommends 8 months as the age to give children spinach. For best results, cook spinach right away or freeze.

2. Nitrates occur naturally in the soil. But nitrates also occur in artificial fertilizers that are used (unregulated) to promote plant growth. Nitrates are also present in our drinking water.

3. This problem with nitrates in vegetables such as spinach and carrots is not an issue with organic food that does not use the nitrate-dense, artificial fertilizers that farmers add to their crops. Don’t forget, these ‘conventional’ farmers are not regulated in terms of how much and how often they can fertilize. So if in doubt, buy organic. Even better, buy organic and local.

4. Nitrate poisoning is very rare; when it does occur it is usually traced back to ground water contamination.

5. Commercial baby food companies may “screen” for nitrates, but they don’t have to and they don’t remove them.

My advice to moms is this: Please don’t let all this concern stop you from giving these important leafy green and vitamin A rich veggies to your kids. You can feel secure giving your babies these veggies organically. Just follow the correct stages: i.e., carrots around 7 months, broccoli and spinach around 8 months.

For more information about when to give what, see my previous post on First Foods For Baby.

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Suitable for babies 8 months and up


  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • ½ onion, chopped
  • 1 large zucchini, washed and cut into ¼ inch slices
  • 1 small potato, washed, peeled, and cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 1 8-oz bunch spinach, washed and roughly chopped
  • 1 cup vegetable stock

    1. Heat oil and fry onion gently until softened; add potato and zucchini and stir. Add vegetable stock. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

    2. Add chopped spinach and stir. Simmer until veggies are soft but still bright green (don’t over cook to olive green color).

    3. Puree in a food processor and serve. Freeze leftovers in covered ice cube trays or 4 oz. containers.


  • Mix in some grated cheese for added flavor.

  • Mix with small pieces of pasta for more substantial meal.

  • When baby is 1 year, serve with white fish and grated cheese for a delicious fish Florentine.”

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