When Ana's son, Max, first started solids, I was on another continent on bed rest with Andrej. She didn't want to pester me with nutrition questions so naturally, she ended up doing hours and hours of online research.
Frustratingly, she found a ton of contradictory information on a lot of different topics. One of the worst offenders was the question "can babies eat grains?"
So this week I wanted to explain the actual scientific thinking behind the answer to that question.
Why Shouldn't They?
This question comes up surprisingly often, and those that think grains should be avoided usually argue that babies' digestive systems do not produce sufficient amounts of pancreatic amylase.
Pancreatic amylase is an enzyme that helps break down complex carbohydrates into simpler ones and eventually into glucose, the body's primary source of energy. It's also the enzyme in adults that does most of the digestive work.
While it's true that newborns do not produce any, babies' digestive systems quickly begin to ramp up production. This continues into childhood, but when most babies start on solids (around 6 months or so), they already have some pancreatic amylase production. By 6 months they have also started producing a lot of salivary amylase, while there's a lot more found in breastmilk.
To understand the full picture, it's helpful to think about how we digest carbohydrates in general.
Complex carbohydrates, like the starch found in grains have to be broken down into glucose before they can be absorbed by our bodies and used for energy.
Digestion (the process of breaking these carbs down) starts in the mouth with "salivary amylase". This enzyme does the initial work breaking down the food we eat, including any carbohydrates. Studies have shown that 6-month old babies produce salivary amylase almost to the same extent as adults.
Once the starch has reached the small intestine, pancreatic amylase continues to break the molecules down to glucose.
There are also other enzymes (like lactase, maltase, isomaltase, and glucoamylase) that contribute to this process – these are all present in babies. Glucoamylase, in particular, can reach adult levels by 1-month-old!
On top of that, there are no obvious symptoms of indigestion in babies that have grains in their diet. For example, the inability to digest lactose (e.g. due to underproduction of the lactose-digesting enzyme, lactase) cause very obvious symptoms including bloating and diarrhea.
Meanwhile, starch is a very common form of complex carbohydrate, being found in grains as well as a number of fruits and vegetables. If babies couldn't digest the starch in grains, there's no reason they would be able to digest it from other sources.
So Can They?
Yes. There is no solid scientific research indicating that babies should avoid eating grains.
There is no solid scientific research indicating that babies should avoid eating grains.
But Should They?
There may not be any evidence that grains are bad for babies, but some people avoid them anyway. However, there is research showing that eating complex carbohydrates encourages your baby's body to produce more amylase.
Also waiting too long to introduce grains has been linked to increased risk of developing celiac disease and wheat allergies. That doesn't mean it eliminates the chances of celiac or wheat allergy, but that they are less likely.
Meanwhile, grains (whole grains in particular) are a nutrient-dense and very convenient food to include in any diet!
Overall, we have enough to worry about as parents, and adding grains to that list is both unhelpful and unscientific.
And if a food has been available for hundreds of thousands of years of human history, eaten by countless generations before us, chances are it's safe for us to eat as well!
- Quantitative assessment of exocrine pancreatic function in infants and children
- Amylase Content of Mixed Saliva in Children
- Role and significance of enzymes in human milk
- Glucoamylase and disaccharidase activities in normal subjects and in patients with mucosal injury of the small intestine
- Risk of celiac disease autoimmunity and timing of gluten introduction in the diet of infants at increased risk of disease
- Timing of initial exposure to cereal grains and the risk of wheat allergy