Perhaps one of the most exciting times as a mom is when your pediatrician gives you the green light to start your baby on solid food, which usually happens around 6 months of age.
For years, rice cereal has been the standby first food, likely because it’s easily digestible. Marketing has a lot to do with it/ too, since boxed rice cereal is cheap and convenient—just add some breast milk, formula or water and you’ve got a meal.
Yet what may surprise you is that babies at this age don’t need rice cereal— or grains for that matter. They need complex carbohydrates like those found in sweet potatoes, which are an excellent source of energy, said Sara Peternell, a master nutrition therapist in Denver, Colo. and co-author of “Little Foodie: Baby Food Recipes for Babies and Toddlers with Taste.”
The reason is that until around their first birthdays, babies don’t have amylase, an enzyme which breaks down grains and makes them easily digestible.
Nevertheless, grains are a great source vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins which provide energy, support the nervous system and help with metabolism. Grains can also add fiber, protein and variety to your baby’s diet.
This combination of calories, carbohydrates and nutrients are what will help babies grow at the rate they need to, said Angela Lemond, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Plano, Texas and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
Rice cereal might not be the best option
True, rice cereal is fortified with iron, folate and B vitamins, which can help prevent your baby from having nutritional deficiencies. However, since it’s processed in a way that removes all of the nutrients, and then is re-fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals, it’s not an ideal grain, Peternell said.
Another concern that has garnered a lot of attention in recent years is arsenic, which is found in both organic and non-organic rice varieties and has been linked to many types of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In fact, data released last year from Consumer Reports showed that a serving of rice cereal can have much more arsenic than levels found in 2012.
“Arsenic is a particular concern for rice because most rice in the world is grown in flooded fields. When you flood the fields, that anaerobic environment seems to encourage the release of arsenic from the ground and the rice plant readily absorbs it,” said Herman Suhirman, marketing manager for Mighty Rice.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to set a federal limit for the amount of arsenic in rice, last July, Codex, a joint commission of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), set new standards for governments to allow no more than 200 parts of arsenic per billion in white rice and no more than 400 parts per billion in brown rice. Although it’s a good start, experts agree it’s not necessarily a safe limit.
Consumer Reports recommends that if you do feed your baby rice cereal, limit it to one serving a day. Also, look for rice from regions with upland rice, or rice grown on dry soil, or rice grown in California, India and Pakistan, which have less arsenic.
Although brown rice is more nutritious than white, white rice of the same variety will always have less arsenic.
“That outer layer [in brown rice] that contains all of the nutrients also holds all the chemicals,” Suhirman said.
You can eliminate about 30 percent of arsenic from rice if you rinse it well before cooking, using a ratio of 6 cups of water per 1 cup of rice. Use as much water to cook it as you would for pasta, and drain the rice halfway through, boil fresh water and finish cooking.
Tasty alternatives for your baby
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents offer their babies a variety of foods such as oats, wheat and barley to avoid arsenic.
In fact, feeding your baby too many whole grains— which also equals too much fiber— could be problematic. Since fiber slows down gastric emptying and aids with weight loss, it could slow down your baby’s growth as well, Lemond said.
Another thing to consider is that since a baby’s digestive system is still developing, gluten-free grains are a good idea. Peternell says many babies who have tummy troubles after introducing wheat are told by the pediatrician that they’re allergic to wheat, when it might just be that their immature GI tracts are not ready for it.
“Often times food sensitivities can arise when we give babies first-year foods with too many of the larger protein molecules,” she said.
All grains have similar nutrient profiles but some are standouts. Oats are naturally gluten-free but be sure to check the label since they’re often grown in fields that are cross-contaminated with wheat. Quinoa is another gluten-free grain but because it’s also a high source of protein, you may want to introduce it slowly and in small amounts. Other grains to try include millet, amaranth, buckwheat and kamut.
Soaking and sprouting grains can also help to break down the enzymes that inhibit absorption, Peternell said. Simmering grains for an hour or cooking them in the slow cooker will also ensure they’re the right consistency for your baby.
Regardless of whether you offer grains from the get-go or hold off for a while, when it comes to feeding your baby, nutrition, variety and balance should always be the goal.
“You want to get that flavor in so when they get older and can handle more fiber and whole grains, they’re going to choose that for themselves,” Lemond said.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.