Grains, Infants, and the Enzyme Amylase

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.

Allergies

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

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.

Phytic Acid

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?

22 thoughts on “Grains, Infants, and the Enzyme Amylase

  1. livingindarwin

    Hi, I was completely unaware of this issue until I started looking into it recently when my daughter seemed to be having some tummy problems and I thought the culprit might be toast. We have done BLS, and she has never had a reaction when 'tasting' food for months, but just the other day she started really eating large amounts of food, particularly bread, and that's when we got these tummy problems. I've taken her off wheat and she's better, but I'm not sure if it's coincidental.

    Thanks for doing the research and writing about it. I have been trying to do the same on my blog as I go (although most of it so far is about sleep).

    Reply
  2. livingindarwin

    Hi, I was completely unaware of this issue until I started looking into it recently when my daughter seemed to be having some tummy problems and I thought the culprit might be toast. We have done BLS, and she has never had a reaction when 'tasting' food for months, but just the other day she started really eating large amounts of food, particularly bread, and that's when we got these tummy problems. I've taken her off wheat and she's better, but I'm not sure if it's coincidental.

    Thanks for doing the research and writing about it. I have been trying to do the same on my blog as I go (although most of it so far is about sleep).

    Reply
  3. Melissa Kemendo

    I didn't use a recipe, and I wish I could remember exactly how I made it, but it has been so long now! I usually soak my oats for the morning in water with a tablespoon of raw apple cider vinegar. I think I just added pumpkin puree and blackstrap molasses to taste, plus some hemp seeds for extra iron :) Hope that helps! 

    Reply
  4. Marika Pickett

    Admittedly, I didn’t do much research when introducing solids and went with Earth’s Best Organic rice and oat cereals followed by their jarred foods while continuing to breastfeed as my son’s primary source of nutrition. Many of the Earth’s Best stage 2 foods contain barley flour and oat flour (even kamut flour), and the jar is marked “6 months and up.” My son seemed to do okay with the rice and oat cereals alone, but developed protracted vomiting which landed him in the ER on 3 occasions with some of the jarred foods. At 14 months, he has had 8 episodes – the last one being two months ago at 1 year old. After seeing a G.I. specialist and allergist, we have been unable to untangle the triggers which led to these episodes. As his mother, however, I started keeping track of what he ate and I am thoroughly convinced that he is sensitive to gluten containing grains, as well as white potato. I’m not entirely sure it’s the gluten or the starch in the grains that he has trouble with. Since he has also had problems with white potato, I wonder if it’s a starch issue. Perhaps the starches in the grains he can tolerate (all gluten-free) are easier to break down? I don’t know, but I agree that it’s difficult to find good information about babies and amylase/enzymes required to break down starch. Once I finally pinpointed the gluten and potato link, he hasn’t had a single occurrence. I do all of his cooking now and he has been entirely gluten and white potato free. He is beautiful and thriving!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Marika. The lack of information is really frustrating, especially when your baby is in pain, I’m sure. I’m so glad to hear that you’ve gotten to the bottom of your son’s issues and he’s doing well now! Hopefully as more moms like you deal with issues like this, the information will get out there to help others.

      Reply
    2. Renee

      My baby was a so-called “happy chucker” from birth to 8 weeks and was thriving until about 5-6 months when her weight gain began to slow down. I had introduced solids early (around 4 months) but had been taking it very slowly, as she showed little interest. She is 8 months now and she has gained only 350 grams since 6 months. A few weeks ago she began to refuse food from the spoon altogether and was eating only a few bits of finger food. She began vomiting a lot again. I decided to withdraw wheat. I challenged her with it 6 days later and she got extremely ill. Vomiting the contents of her tummy completely. However, she seemed to recover quickly and was eating bits of cheese and having a breast feed about an hour after. She was fine after that for almost 2 weeks and began to show more interest in food. Yesterday, spread across the morning she ate a slice of cheese, a small piece of watermelon (never had before), a small piece of banana (doesn’t usually like but seemed happy with) and since we were on a roll I decided to give her some rice noodles later in the day. Her tummy seemed dodgy after that and she soon after fell asleep for over 2 hours (lot longer than usual day nap). She was hungry again when she woke and had a well-cooked egg yolk as well as breast milk (breast milk first). About 2 hours later she started vomiting. It lasted about 2.5 hours and she also had diarrhoea. She slept for 4 hours after that. Had a small feed at 2am, another at 5.30 (which she “happy chucked” some of). She seems a lot better so far today. The idea that her amylase levels are not yet sufficient to digest starch is appealing, and makes me hope she will be ok if I remove all grains for now. But I can’t help but wonder if she has trouble digesting food in general…. I am so worried about her and am hoping for some feedback.

      Reply
      1. melissa Post author

        Hi Renee,

        I’m so sorry to hear of what you and your girl are going through! Her slowed weight gain alone wouldn’t worry me too much, as it’s pretty normal for gains to slow down right around her age – especially if she has recently become more mobile. Of course that’s coming from a mom and not a doctor, but it was definitely my experience, too and I know it’s pretty common. So much is changing with regard to food intake and activity level, so a fluctuation makes sense.

        It definitely sounds like she is having some food tolerance issues, and it sounds like you have done a great job of carefully watching to determine what it is that bothers her. It certainly seems possible that as she grows and begins producing more of the enzymes that will help her process different types of foods, some of these may diminish or go away entirely. In the meantime, I wonder if you have a pediatrician, naturopathic doctor, dietitian, or some other professional you feel comfortable with who might be able to help with some allergy testing, and/or a plan for introducing more foods in a way that might help you avoid some of the stronger reactions? Personally, I think that’s the route I would go at this point. I wish I had more advice for you, but food tolerance issues aren’t really an area of expertise for me and I’d hate to give you bad information. In any case, it sounds like you’re very aware of what’s going on with your daughter – I hope you can get to the bottom of things soon!

        Reply
        1. Renee

          Thanks for the rational advice, Melissa. So sleep deprived it’s hard to think clearly. I am taking her to the doctor again tomorrow and hope to get a referral to a paediatrician. In the meantime, I am sticking with breast milk only! Wish I had done more research about introducing solids; it’s just that my first baby absolutely loved all foods from early on and showed no obvious ill effects from any particular food, so I assumed my girl would be the same.

          Reply
  5. Wendy

    Interesting article. My older son can eat anything with no digestive trouble (guess we haven’t fully tested junk and processed foods, but all real food is good for him). My younger son had loose stools and awful diaper rash, as well as eczema. I went on a grain free diet for my own IBS, and so the boys and husband followed suit since I do most of the cooking. My younger son was 1.5 years old when grains were removed, and his stools normalized, diaper rash disappeared, and skin cleared up. Now, a year later, I have healed and I can eat properly prepared grains, but my son is still very sensitive. I’m pregnant with our third child, so I am doing research to determine what path to take with introducing grains this time around.

    Reply
  6. Heather

    Thank you for this! We’ve been struggling with weight gain in our now 8 month old. I’m happy to have your notes, as I’ve been worrying over grains for a while because of the amylase. The notes on phytic acid are great, too. Thanks!

    I just found this Price Foundation video on fermenting and thought I’d share, related to this post. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nX3RcU5Hhqg

    Glad to find your blog! Will read often (well, as often as I can with an 8 month old!)

    Best,
    Heather

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      I’m so glad it was helpful for you, Heather. Thanks for the comment – it’s always nice to know people are reading and benefiting :) I’ll have to check out the video!

      Reply
  7. Natalie

    Thankyou so much for this balanced overview, I couldn’t sleep last night due to confusion about all these issues as I approach the time to introduce solids to my daughter! This seems a less extreme approach but still considering what is best for the child. What do you also think about the info that tends to accompany these anti-grain posts about feeding babies barely cooked egg yolk and liver as first foods? Which grains are easiest to digest when it does come time to introduce them? Do you have any other links to good resources on this type of baby feeding as it seems pretty limited to random blog posts from what I can see, which are sometimes hard to check for reputable referencing.

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Hi, Natalie. Thanks so much for your comment. I’m thrilled to hear that this information was useful, and glad that you found more info while you were here.

      The recommendation for first foods like egg yolk and liver, I believe, comes from the Weston A. Price foundation – a group I have a hard time putting a great deal of trust in. Most of their recommendations seem to be based on outdated research and the notion that if it’s traditional, it must also be good. In many cases traditional ways are absolutely the best, but obviously this is not true across the board. I have much more I could say about this organization, but you can probably see that some of it is my opinion, so I’ll stop there and just encourage you to do your own research if you’re interested in those guidelines – but it sounds like you already do that. I don’t have go-to sites for nutrition information, really, I just tend to use google scholar when searching on a specific topic, to help me sift through and find evidence-based information.

      Reply
  8. wendy

    Thank you for your blog post.
    I am also worried about iron deficiency in my baby. What did you feed Annabelle as her first food, and what followed prior to feeding the grains at 8 months?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Hi, Wendy. Annabelle’s very first food was broccoli. I did a wide variety of veggies and fruits at first, then slowly introduced the grains as you know. Later on, I just gave her everything that I ate, and now at three she eats the same meals as her dad and me. If you’re nursing, your milk can be excellent iron source, of course, so make sure you’re eating plenty of iron-rich foods :) Otherwise, dark leafy greens, blackstrap molasses, and cooking in cast iron are all great – but you probably know that. I talk about iron here, although it’s in the context of pregnancy: http://vibrantwanderings.com/2012/01/iron-deficiency-anemia-and-pregnancy.html Have fun sharing foods you love! :)

      Reply
  9. Carly Grace

    Hi, I was wondering if you have any more recent sources on pancreatic amylase production in infants. The journal article you cited from the European Journal of Pediatrics is from 1977, I believe. I am discussing this matter with my child’s neonatologist and I would appreciate any more current citations. Thank you for your blog post!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Hi Carly,

      When I was looking into this topic, I could not find much research at all. The citations I included were all I could find that was relevant. If there is something more recent, I’d be interested to see it, too, but I haven’t dug around since writing this. If I have the chance to do so soon, I’ll look around to see what more I can find, if anything, and post if I uncover anything. I’d love to hear about it if you find something, too!

      Reply
  10. Erica

    Thanks for writing this. I have done a lot of research on this issue as well and we have slowly started giving grains at 8 months. We do this on occasion, but most of his diet is grain free at least until two. I think giving some properly prepared grains after about 8 months is alright too.

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Erica! I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who has come to similar conclusions. I hope your 8 month old’s journey into the wide world of solid foods continues to be a positive one :)

      Reply
  11. Rachel

    Thanks for this post… I’ve been amylase-obsessed for almost a year now! :) My 1yo hasn’t had any grains yet, I was under the impression that the pancreatic amylase production coincides with the appearance of the first molars. I hadn’t seen the study you link to yet, and though it’s older, I don’t know that it’s invalid. It’s not exactly cutting edge stuff, it just seems to be stuff that the medical community isn’t interested in :) Frustrating that it’s hard to find info! The thing that bugs me is that things like sweet potatoes are still advised, but amylase doesn’t only break down grains, it’s ALL starches. So confusing, as I am not a molecular biologist…

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      It really is frustrating that info is so hard to come by! The whole issue is really quite confusing, and I can’t find any one source that seems to be right on. I’m glad I’m not the only mom without a molecular biology degree ;p

      Reply

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