The consumption of vegetables is almost always related to the idea of a healthy diet. But there are some exceptions. One of the most important is the one related to some vegetables – spinach, chard and borage – and the advice of specialists that babies and young children do not eat them or do it in small quantities.
Nitrates, bacon, beets and their relationship with cancer
In fact, the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN) published last month an update of its recommendations in this regard, based on the conclusions published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA, for its acronym in English). But What are these indications due to?
In particular, the problem lies in the high nitrate content in those veggies. The nitrates They are salts that are present in the environment naturally, and that reach the organism of human beings in several ways. The main one is green leafy vegetables, but also in the water we drink and in other foods, since they are used as fertilizers in agriculture and as a food additive in other products.
Nitrates themselves are not harmful. What happens is that, after being ingested, nitrates can transform into nitrites. The latter, in large quantities, cause the levels in the blood of a particular type of hemoglobin called methemoglobin. As a consequence, the blood is unable to transport oxygen to the body correctly. Such a problem is called methemoglobinemia.
Why is it a problem in children?
In adults, the nitrates included in spinach, chard and borage are not a significant risk. In any case, benefits of consuming those vegetables they outweigh – by far – their possible negative consequences. But babies and young children, whose digestive systems are less developed and therefore more vulnerable, are exposed to these possible problems.
The most visible sign of methemoglobinemia is cyanosis, better known as “blue baby syndrome”. Because the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues is insufficient, the skin turns that color, especially on the lips, around the mouth, and on the hands and feet.
The cyanosis It can have many other causes (from a child’s exposure to a very low temperature to problems in the lungs, airways or heart) and requires immediate visit to the pediatrician.
Maximum recommended amounts of Swiss chard and spinach
Because of these risks, AESAN has established a series of specific recommendations based on the age of children. Regarding the spinach and chard, are the following:
- Babies up to one year of age: the suggestion is to exclude those vegetables from your diet. In any case, if they are included in the puree, it should be in amounts no greater than 25 grams per day in babies between three and six months (without forgetting that in this period the general recommendation is Breastfeeding exclusively) and up to 35 grams per day during the second semester of life.
- Children between one and three years: At this stage, it is advised that they consume no more than 45 grams per day of chard or spinach. With one exception: that of children who suffer from gastrointestinal bacterial infections. In this case, you should avoid eating these vegetables.
Up to 3 years, no borage
Borage, for its part, is not recommended for children under three years of age. Until a few years ago, this product was not included among those that should be excluded from the diet of children, but some studies carried out by Spanish scientists highlighted its high nitrate content.
It is not by chance that such discoveries were made in our country, since it is here –especially in Navarra, La Rioja and Aragon– where the use of this vegetable is more common in the making homemade purees. The AESAN Explain that a key factor in relation to the presence of nitrates in plants is the light.
The light intensity favors the metabolism of vegetables and reduces the number of nitrates. Consequently, winter crops, greenhouse crops and those in less sunny areas are more risky than summer crops, those carried out outdoors and in areas that receive less sun.
This increases the risk of borage, which is most consumed, as noted, in northern Spanish regions. In addition, the Agency recommends washing the vegetables well and, if possible, cooking (“always discarding the resulting water at the end”), as these processes help reduce the nitrate content.
And once they have been cooked, whether they were left whole or used for a puree, never leave them at room temperature: They should be kept in the refrigerator if they are to be eaten within a day or frozen if they are to be consumed later.
Other health effects of nitrates
Moreover, in recent years numerous studies have been published on the possible effects of including nitrates in the diet of the general population. Some of those jobs have reached the conclusion that nitric oxide produced in the body by nitrites plays a role in fundamental role in cardiovascular health.
This is: contribute lelasticity of blood vessels, improves platelet function (reducing the risk of thrombus formation) and reduces blood pressure, in addition to promoting sports performance. In what still does not exist a consensus between the specialists is around the possible negative effects of a high consumption of nitrates.
Among which – in addition to the already mentioned methemoglobinemia – could be certain types of cancer and, paradoxically, cardiovascular diseases. Some of the studies More recent reports state that nitrate levels in vegetables are not a problem for consumers, although others point out the risks of nitrates of agricultural origin that they pollute the water and that have motivated the European Union urge Spain for compliance with regulations.
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