The following is a guest post from Beth Martin. Beth is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and the owner of Small Bites Wellness in Seattle, Washington. She is passionate about whole food nutrition for the whole family and believes that ANY change you make in the pursuit of your health, or your child’s health, is worthy. Health is a journey, not a destination. Thank you Beth, for this great information!
I recently shared the most common reasons pediatricians recommend rice cereal as a first food for infants.
I advocate feeding children nutrient dense whole foods that naturally contain the macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals they need to grow and develop. Rice cereal does not fit into this paradigm as a first food, and here’s why.
Rice Cereal Has Very Little Nutrition
Rice cereal is a low nutrition food. It is starch (sugar), with added synthetic vitamins and minerals.
Not only is it low in nutrients, recent studies have found that the amount of inorganic arsenic in rice cereal may be detrimental to children’s learning. The FDA has introduced a limit to the amount of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. Testing found that slightly more than half of the rice cereals currently on the market exceed the new limit.
Infants require fat and cholesterol to support brain and cell membrane development. Fat is also needed to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Proteins are the building blocks of cells, and so important during the rapid development taking place in the first year. The average serving of rice cereal has half a gram of fat and one gram of protein.
With it’s lack of nutrients and the potentially damaging effects of arsenic, why is rice cereal a go-to first food? Yes, it is a source of carbohydrates, which infants require for body and brain fuel. But so are sweet potatoes, which are naturally rich in vitamins A and C, manganese, copper, pantothenic acid, potassium, dietary fiber, niacin, phosphorus, and vitamin B1, B2, and B6.
Why feed our children a processed food, in which a limited number of nutrients are added back in after processing? Each bite of rice cereal is a missed opportunity to introduce an infant to a whole food, one that is a nutrient dense source of many natural macro and micro nutrients.
Rice Cereal May Be Difficult for Infants to Digest
The ability of infants to digest grains is debated, and you can find information to support that infants both do and do not have the ability to properly digest grains, including rice.
From studies in the 1970s, we know that infants at six months old do not have adult levels of amylase (an enzyme that digests carbohydrates). Infants produce salivary amylase starting around three months, but they will not reach adult levels of pancreatic amylase until around 16 months.
While infants do not have adult level pancreatic amylase, they do have high levels of both salivary amylase and the enzyme glucoamylase, which also helps break down starch. Breastfed babies also benefit from the amylase available in breast milk. Are these enough to make up for the lack of pancreatic amylase? The chemistry of digestion is complex and I have yet to find a definitive answer, so I choose to air on the side of caution with grains and infants.
Undigested foods can lead to permeability in the intestinal lining and imbalanced gut flora. As we continue to learn just how important the gut microbiome is on overall health, and how damaging leaky gut can be, if there is any doubt that infants can not digest a food, I think it is worth considering if that food is necessary. Leaky gut and imbalances in gut flora have been linked to autoimmune diseases, fatigue, depression, autism, food allergies, and many other conditions.
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If there is little nutrition to be gained from rice cereal, and many whole food sources of iron and other vitamins and minerals, is it worth risking an infant’s gut health?
We’d love to hear from you! What first foods did you introduce to your child?
See also, “Why Pediatricians Recommend Rice Cereal (And Why I Don’t Agree)”