Last week I was sent an article by a friend. Her husband used it as evidence to support feeding cereal grains. The article, Amylase in Infancy: Can Babies Digest Starch? was written by Alice Callahan, PhD in 2013. While this is relatively recent, the science used to make some her points is older.
I am a food and book nerd so I was excited to find a science-based article on baby nutrition. However, when the author mentioned that she was using nutrition psychology from the 1960s and 70s I grew concerned. Isn’t this when scientists were saying that fat was bad, something that has since been proven completely untrue? Scientists from this era were also touting the virtues of vegetable oil and margarine. We now know that these oils tend to be rancid, are made with GMOs and laden with pesticide. They also increase the risk of heart disease.
For the moment, we will assume the the anatomy lesson given in the article is correct and will move on to the reasons Dr. Callahan believes that babies should be given starch in the first year. She goes on to explain what she believes are the dangers of delaying starches. Before addressing each of these issues, let me point out that starch and gluten/wheat are not interchangeable words.
Starch – plantrid polysacchaes composed of glucose that are digestible by humans (from Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, Edition 19). Starches are an important part of the human diet.
Gluten-containing grains fall within this category, as do many vegetables and fruits that do not contain gluten. Giving your child a mashed sweet potato is not the same as giving your child a piece of bread. Both are starches, but only the bread can cause intestinal damage to a person with Celiac Disease.
An increased risk of developing Celiac Disease,
Celiac has a genetic basis and thereby cannot be caused by delaying the introduction of gluten. Co-director of pediatric gastroenterology at Miami Children’s Hospital, Dr. William Muinos, has this to say: “If you have the genetic makeup for celiac disease and you are introduced to gluten at any time, you are going to get the disease.” However, epigenetics plays a large part in the expression of genetic traits, so I did a little more research. I found two studies in the New England Journal of Medicine confirming that the delay of gluten introduction will not increase the risk of developing Celiac Disease: Randomized Feeding Intervention Infants at High Risk for Celiac Disease and Introduction of Gluten, HLA Status, and the Risk of Celiac Disease in Children. The later study actually found that delaying the introduction of gluten until after 1 may delay the onset of Celiac Disease in those with a genetic predisposition.
An increased risk of wheat allergy
The research on this seems to be inconclusive. This article from 2014 explains that delaying allergenic foods does not have a protective effect but that more research needs to be done to determine whether it is beneficial in any way.
Eliminating starch could make it more difficult to babies to get the nutrients they need
As stated above, starch and gluten are not synonymous. There are plenty of starchy foods that absolutely should be in a baby’s diet. These include sweet potatoes,peas, squash, beans (properly soaked and cooked for maximum digestion), and bananas. These are all whole foods that pack a strong nutritional punch.
Fortified cereal grains are fortified because all of the original nutrition has been removed during the preparation and packaging process used by companies such as Gerber and General Mills. Vitamins and minerals are then added back in to meet USDA dietary guidelines. However, there is increasing evidence that some of the added nutrients, such as folic acid, can be toxic for those with the MTHFR gene mutation (see also Folic Acid Fortification, Increase in MTHFR and Rise in Autism?). Also of concern are the findings of a 2014 study from the Netherlands. Researchers found that in about half of the enriched products tested, vitamin levels “significantly deviated from the declared amounts.” Given this information, I would be unwilling to rely on enriched foods to meet dietary needs of anyone, adult or child.
One more note on the subject of fortified cereals. A 2016 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that babies who consume infant rice cereal have more arsenic in their urine that those who do not. If you are going to feed your child rice, please research the safest options and cooking methods. You can find the FDA advice here. Understand that while the FDA is proposing a limit on arsenic in infant rice cereal, it is only a proposal at this time and that half the baby cereals tested had arsenic levels higher than the proposed limit of 100 ppb.
There may be negative consequences to being anxious and restrictive about food with young children.
Dr. Callahan has a valid point with this argument. Too often we see the problems with children learning to fear food or developing an unhealthy relationship with food. However, not giving a 6-month old bread or rice cereal does not logically connect to a teen who has food anxiety. Teaching a child to eat and enjoy real, whole food leads to a lifetime of healthy eating. In fact, a higher quality diet, generally considered to be one low in processed foods, is linked to better long-term glycemic control.
Having said that, I am a fan of the 90/10 rule. We eat healthy, whole foods 90% of the time, but also enjoy treats or meals out on occasion. My children know how to read labels and that whole foods are better than packaged foods. Baby cereal definitely falls into the later category.
In conclusion, the internet can be a wonderful or dangerous thing and that it is important to do your own research and make the decisions that are best for your family.