When it comes to introducing foods to infants, grains are about as confusing as it gets. I already briefly discussed rice cereal and the many reasons why serving it as a first food is ill-advised, but what about grains in general? Knowing that grains can be among the more difficult foods to digest, I was waiting to introduce them to Annabelle, but I didn’t know for certain why or how long I would wait. So, I did some research. There are three things it seems one should consider in making decisions on when to introduce grains to infants and toddlers: allergies, the enzyme amylase, and phytic acid.
One of the reasons rice cereal has been so popular, despite its drawbacks, is that it is “hypo allergenic,” meaning that since it’s gluten free, it is unlikely to cause any type of allergic reaction. Since gluten is a common allergen, many recommend that it be avoided until sometime closer to the end of the first year. Some sources say eight months, others ten, and still others recommend waiting until after the first birthday. However, for those children whose families do not have a history of food allergies, it’s not a grave concern. If you are concerned about allergies, you can always offer gluten-free grains like rice, quinoa, millet, or amaranth.
Amylase is the enzyme in the body that breaks down grains. It is present both in saliva and in the pancreas. My own amylase research began when I read an article suggesting that grains should not be given at all, at least until the first birthday. Since this information was so different from anything I had heard before, I set out to see if I could find any supporting evidence. I couldn’t, and the author couldn’t provide any. There was something to it, however.
It is true that newborns produce only very small amounts of this enzyme, and therefore are unable to properly digest grains. I had a difficult time finding good studies that looked into the issue, but I did eventually manage to find this one from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on salivary amylase, and this one from the European Journal of Pediatrics on pancreatic amylase. In the American study, some infants tested had salivary amylase levels comparable to those of adults by the age of three months, while most all had comparable levels by five months. The European study found that infants tended to have pancreatic amylase levels close to those of adults by eight months.
Of course we all know that every child is different, and all children develop at different rates, so basing our decisions purely on an average is not always the best thing to do. When it comes to giving a child something that will potentially rot in their gut, I’d rather wait a couple of extra months. It seems to me that waiting until eight or nine months is prudent, but that is of course a decision that every parent will make for themselves.
Anyone who pays much attention to food or nutrition blogs has probably read a great deal about phytic acid, a substance present in grains in relatively large amounts. Phytic acid is often referred to as an “anti-nutrient,” as it blocks absorption of minerals, like iron, magnesium, zinc, and calcium, in the body (one reason why soy has fallen from grace in the eyes of many). I won’t go into great detail, because many a food blogger has done so already, but the best method of reducing the phytic acid content of grains seems to be by soaking, or fermenting them. I have yet to purchase it myself, but everywhere I go, I read recommendations for a book titled Nourishing Traditions, which I’m told has excellent advice on the subject. It’s on my list, though I know it does not advocate a vegetarian diet at all.. I was first introduced to the idea when I found this post over at The Nourishing Gourmet.
So what are we doing?
At almost nine months old, Annabelle had her first adventure with grains yesterday when she tried a bit of fermented pumpkin oatmeal for breakfast. There is no history of food allergies in our family and Annabelle has shown no adverse reactions to any foods so far, so I felt that we were safe in that department. Since she is well past the eight month mark now, I feel confident that she has the enzymes necessary to digest grains, but I also know that iron deficiency runs in my family, and I was borderline anemic early in my pregnancy, until I educated myself on iron absorption, so I am particularly concerned with phytic acid. I am taking care at this stage to only give her fermented grains.
When did you introduce grains? How did you make your decision? What was your child’s reaction to them?