Starchy baby food

Can starchy foods be harming your baby?

It’s now recommended to start babies on solids between 4 and 6 months. However, in conflict to our supermarket shelves adorned with baby-rice, baby-porridge and baby-muesli, science warns against feeding infants a diet rich in starchy foods (also known as farinaceous foods, e.g. rice, breads, potatoes, porridge, cereals, crackers, etc). In fact, some people believe they’re simply the worst meals to feed young babies!

Can starchy foods be harming your baby?

The science is in…

Medical science has clearly understood that the amylase enzyme ‘ptyalin’ (pronounced ty-u-lin) contained within our saliva is critical in initiating the body’s digestive processes. Pancreatic amylase, which is secreted by the pancreas into the small intestine, is also considered a workhorse in the body’s digestive process. These processes are used to break down starch into glucose sugars. What science also knows is that infants produce almost no ptyalin, and very little pancreatic amylase, until well after 6 months of age.

Without these starch-busting enzymes being produced, 3 bodily reactions commonly occur after feeding a baby starch:

  • The indigestible starch ‘ferments’ in the intestinal tract, causing digestive discomfort and possibly digestive disorders
  • Baby’s mucous ‘thickens’, potentially causing ear, nose or throat problems
  • Your baby’s blood sugar levels increase

Perhaps this is a partial explanation for the epidemic levels of continual sore tummies, runny noses, recurring ear infections, tonsillitis, bronchiolitis, asthma and even diabetes and obesity we now see prevalent in the developed world?

Hold on, but what about babies in developing countries, or Asian babies, being fed rice and other staple starches? Why is it OK for them?

It’s a really simple answer actually. For thousands of years, mothers in these countries have always chewed the baby food first, before feeding it to their infant – unwittingly coating the baby’s food with the ptyalin enzyme from their own saliva.

Interestingly, the levels of asthma, diabetes, obesity and ear infections are on the rise in developing countries too. Could this be something to do with changes in how babies in these countries are now being fed?

But getting back to Western medicine and its history…

Apparently medical science has known that starchy foods aren’t good for infants for quite some time.

In the 1800s, renowned surgeon and obstetrician Pye Henry Chavasse wrote, “I wish, then, to call your special attention to the following facts, for they are facts – Farinaceous foods, of all kinds . . . are worse than useless – they are positively, injurious, they are, during the early period of infant life, perfectly indigestible . . . A babe’s salivary glands . . . does not secrete its proper fluid – namely, ptyalin, and consequently the starch of the farinaceous food is not converted . . . and is, therefore, perfectly indigestible and useless – nay, injurious to an infant”.

Since then there have been numerous other respected doctors, professors and scientists all saying a similar thing, over and over and over again. This includes Prospiro Sonsino, Tilden, Routh, Huxley, Youmans, Dalton, Page, Densmore, to name but a few. However, in recent decades medicine and the science of nutrition seem to have ‘forgotten’ this knowledge.

Dr Page wrote, “Milk is the food for babies and contains all the elements necessary to make teeth, and until they are made, it should continue to be the sole food. It is not enough that two or three or a half dozen teeth have come through, that they should be expected to do any part of a grown child’s work … Upon no consideration should any of the farinaceous or starchy articles be added until the mouth bristles with teeth”.

Then, in the early to mid-1900s, rebel health pioneer and prolific writer Dr Herbert Shelton focused on this subject too, when he wrote, “The fact that Nature makes no provisions for the digestion of starches before full dentition [growing of teeth], should be sufficient evidence that she does not intend it to form any part of the infant’s diet. Before the teeth are fully developed the saliva of the infant contains a mere trace of ptyalin, the digestive ferment or enzyme that converts starch into sugar . . . Certain it is that nature did not intend the baby to chew food until its teeth are sufficiently developed to perform this function . . . No starchy foods or cereals should be given under two years”.

So why do we feed our babies starchy food?

This is such important knowledge, I seems truly odd that with such massive scientific evidence, our society remains so obsessed with starchy baby foods – and the equally nonsensical belief that carbohydrate starches should be the main staple of all infants’ ongoing diet.

Is it a case of the ‘big food’ industry pushing unnecessary product on consumers to satisfy the never-ending desire for dividends? Are we rushing too quickly into feeding solids, and quick-and-easy food options, due to our hectic, fast paced modern lives? Have we simply forgotten what our grandparents and great-grandparents knew intuitively about feeding infants? Who knows?

In some ways it reminds me of how completely accepted cigarettes were half a century ago, when most people genuinely didn’t understand – simply because they weren’t told – that smoking was damaging their health. Even though plenty of medical science was being produced to show that cigarettes were extremely harmful.

So OK then, I hear some readers asking, if we don’t feed our infants baby rice, baby cereal, baby porridge, mashed potato, kumara, bread, pasta, noodles, crackers, biscuit, rusks, and other starch – then what the heck do we feed a baby instead?

Well, the answer is pretty simple, as is the solution: primarily vegetables and fruit – topped up with some protein. If you do have to use baby rice, or include potato or kumara in your baby mash, do so sparingly and definitely not every day. Ideally your infant should stick to this diet from 6 months right through to 12 months. And only after 1 year of age, and lots of teeth in the mouth, should starchy food start to become the staple part of your baby’s diet.

There are certainly experts who may disagree with some of this menu’s aspects – but, for today there’s only one thing that all nutritionists agree on, and that is that there are opponents to all opinions. At the end of the day, you should go with your gut, and do what you think is best for your bub.

Check out our Baby foods recipe section for more infant meal ideas

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The truth about serving grains and other starches to your baby

Can babies and toddlers digest starch? If you search for the answer to this question online, you’ll run into dire warnings of the dangers of giving starch to babies and kids under 2. People say that starch just “rots” in your baby’s gut and that they don’t have the enzymes they need to digest it. Serious warnings are given about this, completely shaming parents (in my opinion) for listening to “mainstream recommendations” that tell you to give your baby starchy foods as one of their first meals – because it causes food allergies and a host of other problems, or so they say…

Honestly, that’s a bit dramatic.

All this does is make you feel like if you’ve given your baby cereal, toast, or heck – even sweet potatoes- you’ve done something wrong.

This is a subject that you’ll see pop up in many-a-Facebook group, and on online blogs, and I’m here to get down to the real truth. I hate false fears in the nutrition world, let alone in the baby nutrition world, so let me clear this myth up right here and now.

If you’d like to listen to me debunk this myth, tune into the podcast episode here – you can even download it and save it for later!

What even is starch?

Starch is a type of complex carbohydrate made from lots of glucose molecules bonded together in long, branching chains. It’s a plant’s way of storing glucose – aka energy. Our brains use glucose directly, so we have to be able to break starch down into glucose in order to literally live and have energy. Starches are found, not just in grains, but in root vegetables, winter squashes, beans, and some fruits, like bananas. So this is not just an issue about grains!

How do we digest starch?

Here’s where the research comes in, and this is going to get a bit scientific, but let’s break it down. The digestion of starch actually begins in the mouth! There’s an enzyme called salivary amylase that starts to break down those large chains of glucose that form the starch, so that it’s partially digested. Then it makes its way down to the small intestine where pancreatic amylase – different from salivary amylase – is secreted by the pancreas and breaks it down even further (with the help of some other enzymes) until it’s only glucose molecules that can be absorbed directly.

The breakdown of starch in babies

Ok, so now let’s put it into the context of babies and their digestion, because it does differ slightly from adults. When babies are on an all breastmilk or formula diet, the type of carbohydrates they’re digesting are all simple sugars, primarily lactose. When they start solid foods, they’re adapting to starches for the first time. And to be clear, many cultures around the world do offer starch as one of the first foods, such as cereal or porridge.

And it’s interesting to think about this because if you look at the research around the digestive system of newborn babies, they actually don’t have any pancreatic amylase in the small intestine. Now, as the months go on, and they approach six months of age, they do start to develop more and more of it – and by 4-6 months of age, they do have some pancreatic amylase, but way less than the amount found in older kids and adults.

If I’m honest, what doesn’t make sense, at first, is how they seemed to be able to digest starch perfectly fine, without much pancreatic amylase! In this research, no issues occurred with digestion, nor were there really any negative symptoms at all. And to me, that part does make sense when I think about it. If we look at what babies are fed all around the world, generally those first foods are all starchy. In Tanzania they serve millet flour at 3 months; corn porridge at 3 months in Zimbabwe; beans and rice at 4 months in Brazil. And these are just a few examples. So how can it be that babies all around the world are able to digest starch, and have been able to for centuries, if they lack the enzymes to do so? Why did all these babies not have any issue digesting these foods, for generations?

Time for some more research. I found a small study that examined how much starch was found in a baby’s poop (which therefore indicates how much of it was digested), after various amounts were given to the babies, and at various ages. This study found that very little starch ended up in these babies’ diapers. When they were given between 1 tablespoon and ½ cup of starch per day, the babies appeared to digest more than 99% of it. The researchers then tried a larger dose, and actually gave several 1 month olds a full cup of rice starch. Three of these infants absorbed more than 99% of this amount. Two absorbed just 96%, with the other 4% ending up in their diapers, along with some diarrhea. In other words, within the first few months of life, babies can digest small amounts of starch just fine, but give them too much, and you’ll see some diarrhea. Obviously I’d never recommend giving 1 month old babies solids anyway, starch or no starch. And I’ve mentioned before that one of the MANY reasons why you should wait until 6 months of age, or so, to introduce solids is to ensure that their digestive system is ready. But it just goes to show that even at that young age, it’s still possible for babies to digest the majority of the starch that they ingest. 

SO this still begs the Well, there are a few theories that help explain why.

Reasons why babies CAN digest starch
  1. Babies make lots of salivary amylase which reaches near adult levels by 6 months of age. This enzyme survives the acidic conditions of the stomach reasonably well, and therefore even breaks down starch in the stomach after travelling there on the food from the mouth. So it basically works overtime to get the job done – first in the mouth and then in the stomach to continue the job there.
  2. Human breastmilk has lots of amylase! It’s actually present in the highest amount early on in colostrum, probably to make up for the fact that at this point babies only have very little salivary amylase and obviously no pancreatic amylase. And, breastmilk amylase continues to work in the small intestine in much the same way salivary amylase does – it survives acidic conditions in the stomach and works on breaking down the starch in the small intestine. What’s also so cool is that there are proteins in the breastmilk that protect breastmilk amylase, and one study showed the ability for only 100 ml of breastmilk to digest 20 g of starch in an hour! To put this into context, that’s about ⅔ cup of cereal, so clearly the breastmilk amylase works very efficiently, even without pancreatic amylase being present. 
  3. Glucoamylase helps out in the small intestine too. This is another enzyme found in the small intestine, which also breaks down the glucose molecules in starch, and is actually extremely active in infants and present in high quantities for them as early as 1 month of age. So this clearly does the job for digesting starch when pancreatic amylase can’t. At this point it’s becoming clear that the digestion doesn’t operate in the same way as it does for adults, but it does still operate.
  4. A baby’s body produces more amylase as carbs are introduced. Interestingly, it seems that once complex carb-containing food is introduced to your baby, their body responds by secreting more amylase. The same thing occurs with protein introduction and trypsin, the enzyme that digests protein. This makes so much sense! Their body is going to respond based on what they’re eating – body’s are reactive and built to do exactly this.
  5. Starch fermentation in the large intestine promotes a healthy gut microbiome. Finally, critics have always said that a portion of starch doesn’t get digested in the small intestine, and therefore it sort of sits and “rots” there. But the truth is, this happens for adults too! And what the research actually shows is that instead of “rotting” in the small intestine, it moves into the large intestine and ferments. This process helps provide “food”, if you will, to the good bacteria in our gut, and therefore promotes a healthy gut microbiome. So for babies, there’s a significant amount of starch that does this in the large intestine. And this actually happens for an important reason. The beneficial bacteria it’s feeding when it ferments improves a baby’s ability to absorb nutrients, and is used as a source of energy when needed.
Even if they can handle starch, should we offer it?

I recommend including starch in your baby’s diet, and there are a few reasons I want to go over to explain why I recommend this, and why I think we actually need to be careful about limiting starch in a baby’s diet.

  1. Waiting too long to introduce grains to your baby could end up increasing the risk of developing celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes, and a wheat allergy. There seems to be a window of opportunity in mid-infancy – probably between about 5 to 7 months – where introduction to a variety of foods, including grains, starches, and gluten, decreases your baby’s risk of developing these chronic diseases, or wheat allergy, later on. This is basically the same concept I teach when it comes to introducing the top allergens early and often, which is based on the most updated recommendations. Doing this allows the body to respond to the proteins and create antibodies in order to handle those proteins and recognize them when they’re ingested. Therefore, decreasing the risk of a reaction, which is presumably the same idea as a baby’s ability to produce amylase in response to the introduction of starchy foods.
  2. Eliminating starch can make it more difficult for babies to get the nutrients they need. Let’s look at the obvious example, infant cereals. These are generally fortified with iron, which is one of the nutrients that is more likely to be deficient in infants. Now as you know, I also recommend offering other sources of iron to your baby, but using iron-fortified cereals is a really simple way to ensure your baby is getting the nutrients they need, and can definitely be part of a varied diet for your baby. I know lots of families do use them, so if we look at cutting those out because they contain starch, all of a sudden we’ve lost a really easy, convenient source of iron for your baby. In general, cutting out starches means cutting out a huge portion of your baby’s nutrition sources, meaning it will be more difficult for them to get the nutrients that they need, which can lead to more problems later on.
  3. Starch is found in so many foods, removing it from your baby’s diet takes away a lot of food options for them. This concern about starch digestion tends to be focused on avoiding grains, but remember that legumes and many fruits and vegetables also have lots of starch. So, if you truly tried to avoid starch, you would really be limiting your baby’s opportunities to get the nutrients they need (as mentioned above), and to experience different tastes and textures. Offering your baby a variety of foods is really important, and so that will always be my recommendation. Obviously in the case of allergies or intolerances, certain limitations will be necessary. But not including those circumstances, eating a variety of foods from all the food groups helps to ensure that your baby gets all the nutrients they need. And the exposure that your baby gets from being offered such a wide variety of foods is crucial in preventing picky eating too.

The bottom line is that it’s safe to feed babies starchy foods. They can digest them, and they are one part of a varied, balanced diet for babies that are ready to begin eating solid foods. 

Interested in learning what foods are best to give your baby, how to serve them, how to prevent picky eating, and advance your baby onto finger foods without any fear or overwhelm? My Baby Led Feeding course is for you so you can confidently move through each phase of feeding to prevent picky eating!

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