Here is why pretty much anything else is better
Millions of parents learn that the first spoon of mush they should offer their baby is rice cereal, white rice cereal. Unfortunately.
Really, baby rice cereal should be banned. Okay, not banned. But it should be harder to find on the shelves, it shouldn't be a go-to.
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Sure, there are a some expensive, organicky, brown ricey options that are okay. But how many people buy those?
Mostly, parents buy white rice cereal made from ground up white rice brought back to life as a purée.
Some will argue that baby white rice cereal is convenient, hypoallergenic, and enriched with vitamins and minerals (you know, just like Froot Loops ( ; ).
All of that is true. I mean, it’s hard to be allergic to a food when there is so little in the food to be allergic to. And adding things like iron can indeed take something pretty empty and make it a source of something good.
But let me give you the reasons not to feed your child baby rice cereal (the arsenic thing might be enough on its own).
It's low in protein
Baby rice cereal does have some protein - though you'd think a food so tortured and torn apart would have little protein left to offer. Still, there are far better options.
Even if you are starting your child with grains, pretty much any other option is better - oats, barley, quinoa - any of them.
You might notice that just-add-water versions of baby rice cereal have more protein, if you're a label reader. But that's because milk powder has been pre-added. The protein isn’t coming from the rice itself. Your child can get the milk protein without the rice.
It has even less fiber
While the lack of protein in baby rice cereal is a concern, the near absence of fiber is an even bigger problem.
If there is one thing grains do well, besides offer a lot of cheap and easy calories, is provide fiber. Baby rice cereal provides very little of that - less then fruit, less than vegetables, less than other grains.
If there is one magic food ingredient, it's fiber. Fiber prevents heart disease, it reduces gallstones, it helps us avoid colon cancer. Admittedly, these are not common baby diseases, but the long-term benefits of fiber are undeniable.
Choosing a low fiber option for your child just makes no sense.
Your child could get constipated
Why else do you want your child to have fiber? To avoid constipation. Not enough fiber puts children (and adults) at risk for constipation that can lead to tummy aches, poor sleep, decreased appetite.
None of which you want. Right? Your child can get their fiber from other food of course. But if white rice cereal is their one starting solid food, they aren't getting much.
And if it has added iron (which it should for health reasons), it can be even more constipating, as extra iron can sometimes be.
Count this as a warning to you white rice-addicted adults as well (I understand the addiction, believe me), it tends to be constipating for you too.
Bland, bland, bland, bland
Usually blandness in baby food is seen as a virtue. Start your child with rice cereal, they say, it is the least objectionable of all foods, no strong flavours or textures for them to reject. This is misguided.
There may be times, with a texture or taste-sensitive child, that you may need to retreat to white rice cereal. But for heaven's sake, don't start them down that path from the beginning!
I know that it's not widely known, but the evidence suggests that if you want your child to embrace a wide variety of flavors and textures, start them on a wide variety of flavors and textures early. Don't start them with bland and try to upsell them later.
That's the tougher path.
Offer your child a variety of tastes, colors, and textures they can choose from right from the beginning, and leave out bland, white rice cereal.
Then there's added sugar
Some white rice cereals manage to be bland and yet still have added sugar.
You might find the words: "No sugar added" in bold letters on the package. Does that assure us that no sugar has been added? No.
Oligofructose, polydextrose, maltodextrin - there are a ton of ways a cereal can be made sweet that aren't officially sugar, but actually are. Heck, we think maltodextrin is absorbed into your child's bloodstream faster than white table sugar.
That's great if you're on mile 23 of a marathon and you need to quickly get some sugar to your cells. But for children it serves no purpose besides making this processed kid food taste okay, and spiking their blood sugar.
But even without the sugar
Even without the sugar, rice cereal is a blood sugar spiker. It has what's called a high glycemic index, meaning the sugar is absorbed really quickly and whooshes its way into the bloodstream.
That's not a good thing.
White rice flour cereal is a sugar bomb disguised as a savory food.
The simpler the carbohydrate, the more processed (and white rice cereal is really processed), the more quickly it absorbs into our bodies and is converted to sugar. It's part of what can make carbs so addictive.
What we know, is that food with fast-absorbing sugars is associated diabetes. And I don't think diabetes is what you are going for.
The arsenic problem
There's an even heavier reason to avoid rice cereal with children though.
Rice is a leading source of the bad kind of arsenic (yes, there is a not-as-bad kind of arsenic). This is because rice plants are so good at absorbing arsenic as they grow.
Infant rice cereal is no exception. And according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, infants in the United States consume on average three times as much rice for their body weight as American adults.
These are small amounts of course, and this is not to say that children should never eat rice. But no one knows exactly how much is too much, or what the impacts of a typical amount of baby rice cereal might be.
It's better to be safe, no? Given the other reasons to avoid it?
Even pregnant women, we think, are best not eating too much rice, though that's hard to do in some cultures.
Enriched with vitamins and minerals
While I hate giving you a reason to give rice cereal, there are the added vitamins and minerals. The iron is especially important - a key element in your child's diet.
But at least give them enriched oats or barley. There will be more fiber, if it hasn't been all processed out. And likely more protein too. It's just better food than white rice cereal.
Why do we start with rice cereal?
In the end ...
There is no real medical or scientific reason to start children with rice cereal mush. It's just cultural now. It's what our parents did, what we are taught to do.
Was it promoted heavily by a company? Did some famous expert endorse it? I don't know. Doctors did. Do.
But it's just a habit now. A habit we should quit.
What to start with instead
So what food should you start your child with?
Cooked carrots, mushed peas, little bits of soft meat, almost any good food you want to start your child with is going to be more nutritious than white rice cereal. It's likely to have more fiber, more protein, and/or more healthy fat.
I'm a fan of finger-based baby feeding too, which doesn't involve as many spoonfuls of goop (though that's a story for another piece). More baby-led weaning, as it's called, makes rice and other cereal purées less important anyway.
Still, if you are starting with purées, there are other cereals to use, and plenty of other good foods you can purée up.
Do that. Don't start your child on rice cereal.