It’s confusing enough trying to figure out how to start feeding your baby. And when you throw in the issue of environmental toxins in baby food, a whole new level of confusion is added!
A few years ago the discovery of arsenic in our food supply made us all question whether we should continue the tradition of feeding infants rice cereal as a first food. While there is still no clear-cut answer, or even “official” guidelines, we can use the information available to best protect and nourish these new eaters.
My Personal Suggestion – From Amy Higbee (RDN, CD)
Based on the research so far, I suggest starting with a whole-grain fortified infant cereal such as oats, and continuing with a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole and multigrain fortified infant cereals and meats. If you do offer rice cereal, don’t offer it every day. Variety in your baby’s diet is the best defense against environmental toxins.
Following is a summary of current research and advice from evidence based sources.
Arsenic makes up part of the earth’s core, and is naturally present in many foods, including grains, fruits and vegetables. The naturally occurring arsenic in food is referred to as “organic”, and is not considered the threat. “Inorganic” arsenic is the troublesome form of which long-term exposure is believed to be associated with higher rates of some cancers and may have other implications. The terms organic and inorganic refer to the chemical form of arsenic, and not the farming technique used to grow the food. Even if rice is grown using organic farming techniques, inorganic arsenic from the soil and water supply can get into the rice as it grows.
The inorganic arsenic in our food supply comes from pesticides and poultry fertilizer, which get into the soil and water used to grow food. Rice is under extra scrutiny because it absorbs the arsenic more readily than some other plants.
In 2013 the FDA conducted a study to determine the average level of arsenic in more than 1,300 samples of rice and food items made from rice. They found variable levels between food categories, as well as between food items in the same category. The FDA has not set specific limits regarding rice, and is still working on determining the possible long-term effects of arsenic exposure.
Consumer Reports also conducted their own analysis, both in 2012 and more recently. They offer additional information regarding arsenic levels in different rice foods and other grains. Using their research, they assigned point values to different rice products with higher points associated with a higher level of arsenic, and provide a recommendation for a total point limit of 7 per week. Infant rice cereal was assigned a point value of 1 ¼ points, so if no other sources of rice were in your baby’s diet that would be a limit of about 5 ( ¼ cup uncooked) servings per week. See below for the link to the Consumer Reports article.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that parents offer their children a wide variety of foods, including other grains, such as oats, wheat and barley, which will decrease their child’s exposure to arsenic from rice. Previously, the belief was to hold off on exposing infants to possibly allergenic foods such as wheat, however current practice is moving away from that theory.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan organization that works to protect human health and the environment, advises against using infant rice cereal as a first food. EWG suggests trying soft fruits, vegetables, meats or whole-grain non-rice cereals.
One common thread in most advisory organizations is to include a variety of foods in your infant’s diet. The best way to protect your baby from environmental toxins and provide the most nourishment is to slowly introduce a variety of food.
There are no “perfect” first foods, however, some foods may be more easily accepted by your baby. Soft vegetables, fruits or fortified whole-grain infant cereals all make great possible first foods. I have also seen recommendations for using meat as a first food because of the iron content, however it might be a challenging texture change for sensitive brand new eaters.
Babies accumulate iron in utero, and iron stores typically last until they are about 4-6 months. At this age breastfed infants need some additional iron in their diet. This is one reason why fortified infant rice cereal has always been the standard. Today, there are other choices of whole-grain, fortified cereals such as oats, barley or multigrain. Including some of these cereals in your baby’s first foods will help meet their need for iron. Offering meat would also provide iron, but in my experience the texture is more challenging for some babies in the very beginning. This issue is not as much of a concern for formula-fed babies as most formulas are iron-fortified.
There is no clear –cut answer to the question of whether or not to feed infant rice cereal to your baby or not. If you do choose to offer rice cereal, try to vary it with other foods so it is not a daily staple.
After researching the current evidence, if I were to start feeding my own baby, I would choose one of the fortified whole-grain cereals such as oats to start with. Then I would move on to include vegetables, fruits, other fortified infant cereals, and meat. I would include rice cereal only occasionally for variety, because our best defense against toxins in our food is to not eat too much of one thing! Not to be too negative, but you never know what toxin will be discovered in what food next week! My husband makes fun of how neurotic I am because I don’t even like to eat the same food twice in a day (unless it’s chocolate)! On a more positive note, feeding your baby a variety of foods not only better protects them from environmental toxins, but also helps provide a more complete diet for their growth and development.
Questions & Answers: Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm319948.htm. August 4, 2014. Accessed March 20, 2015.
How Much Arsenic Is In Your Rice? http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2015/01/how-much-arsenic-is-in-your-rice/index.htm. November 2014. Accessed March 20, 2015.
AAP Offers Advice For Parents Concerned About Arsenic In Food. American Academy of Pediatrics Website. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/AAP-Offers-Advice-For-Parents-Concerned-About-Arsenic-in-Food.aspx. September 6, 2013. Accessed March 20, 2015.
Arsenic in Rice – Should You Worry? http://www.ewg.org/foodscores/content/arsenic-contamination-in-rice. Accessed March 20, 2015.