I recently wrote about my favorite first foods for infants. What didn’t make the list is one of the most popular infant first foods: Rice cereal. For decades, rice cereal has been the recommended first food, sometimes at as early as two months of age.
In recent years though, many doctors, nutritionists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have changed their tune. The AAP recommends that infants be exposed to a wide variety of flavors and textures, and states that they are more likely to eat foods they see their parents eating. Given this, and the AAP’s guidelines to meet developmental milestones prior to starting solids, it is a good time to rethink first foods.
I advocate feeding children nutrient dense whole foods that naturally contain the macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals they need to grow and develop. Here are four reasons why rice cereal does not fit this recommendation.
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. To this end, 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.1
The average serving of rice cereal has half a gram of fat and one gram of protein. But infants require fat and cholesterol to support brain and cell membrane development, and 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.
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.Each bite of rice cereal is a missed opportunity to introduce a nutrient dense whole food. Click To Tweet
Not sure which foods to start with when introducing your little one to solids? Try one of my favorite first foods for babies.
Rice Cereal is Iron Fortified
The main reason for the popularity of rice cereal is that iron-fortified cereals have been recommended by pediatricians to ensure infants receive adequate iron. Around six months of age, an infant’s store of iron begins to decrease. Iron is crucial to brain development and is needed to create hemoglobin, among many other roles in the body. Clearly, iron is important.
But is rice cereal the best way to ensure infants receive iron? Rice is not a natural source of iron. The iron available in fortified cereals is not always processed in the body the same way as naturally occurring iron, and fortification can lead to too high of iron levels. Studies have linked synthetic iron supplementation in cereals and formula with lower IQ and increased pathogenic bacteria in the gut. 2, 3
There are many whole food sources of natural iron that are appropriate as a first food for infants. Heme iron (from animals) is a great place to start. It is absorbed at higher rates than non-heme iron. Meat, including beef, lamb, and chicken, are the best sources of heme iron. Chicken livers are particularly high in iron and a traditional first food. Meat and eggs as first foods have been shown to provide adequate amounts of iron, zinc, and DHA for infants. 4, 5
Non-heme iron (from plant sources) is less bioavailable and absorption rates are influenced by other foods. Vegetables that contain non-heme iron include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green peas, beans, and sweet potatoes. For plant-based eaters, spirulina is very high in iron (non-heme) and can help ensure little ones are getting enough iron.
While non-heme sources of iron have less iron than heme sources and are harder to absorb, there are ways to increase the uptake. Both heme iron and Vitamin C increase the absorption rate of non-heme iron; serve vegetables with a small bit of meat or a fruit high in Vitamin C. Calcium decreases that absorption of non-heme iron, so it is wise to limit dairy products while eating iron rich food.
So while iron fortified rice cereals are not the best way to meet an infants iron needs in my opinion, it’s important to keep in mind that they serve a specific purpose. If skipping the cereal, other iron sources must be included in a baby’s diet.
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.6
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.
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?If there is little nutrition to be gained from rice cereal, is it worth risking an infant's gut? Click To Tweet
Rice Cereal Does Not Help Infants Sleep Better
Aside from introducing rice cereal for meeting nutrient requirements, doctors have often recommended that parents add rice cereal to bottles to help with infant sleep. However, studies show that there is no significant difference in the ability to sleep through the night between infants fed rice cereal and those that were not.7
In fact, some doctors worry that adding cereal to a bottle can override an infant’s innate mechanism to know how much food he or she requires.
What do you think? Do you plan to skip rice cereal or give it a try? Has your pediatrician recommended rice cereal as a first food?
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