In the early 1970’s, one of the first foods pediatricians would recommend for infants was rice cereal – usually Gerber’s rice cereal. Gerber’s rice cereal, for those of you who have not been introduced to the intricacies of baby food, is a dry flake that look very much like bran flour but are not. The translucent flakes can be mixed with cereal or breast milk and either placed in a bottle with an enlarged nipple hole or spoon fed with a little spoon cushioned with a plastic wrap. The rice cereal was and is vitamin fortified, including a healthy dose of iron. Prior to the 1920’s, solid food was rarely introduced before age one year.
The Driving Force Behind Rice Cereal
The idea of feeding solids at an earlier age was introduced by Helen Marion McPherson Mackay, a British pediatrician. Dr. Mackay was famous for a few other firsts, as well. She was a graduate of the Royal Free Hospital’s medical college and was the first female physician at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. She was also one of the first women to be admitted to the Royal College of Physicians.[amazon_link asins='B00BPESOT4,B00U9W7GYM,B073PHP9G6' template='ProductCarousel' store='us-1' marketplace='US' link_id='29676b3f-d94e-11e8-bd05-bbc60ceb121d']
She was one of the first physicians to notice that between birth and age 2 months, babies seemed to decline in iron stores in their blood. After researching the problem, she recommended iron supplements for nursing mothers and an earlier feeding of solids to compensate for the loss of iron in very young infants.
Of course, the recommendation caught the attention of commercial interests, and by 1931, a commercial baby food called Pablum was marketed by the Mead Johnson Company. The stuff could be made into a thin, watery gruel that could easily be fed to infants.
Eventually, the company was bought out by H.J. Heinz.
The original Pablum was a mixture of farina (a wheat cereal), yellow corn meal, bone meal, dried brewer’s yeast, and alfalfa leaf. The mixture was fortified with iron. Eventually, wheat was outed as a potential trigger for several kinds of allergic reactions, and it was thought that by waiting until a child was older that these reactions could be avoided. This turned out not to be true. Allergies are one of those things that tend to be a permanent companion.
Rice, unlike wheat, was found not to trigger allergies. Gerber, an American baby food company established in 1927, produces a line of “single grain cereals” including rice cereal. Gerber strained foods have been feeding more than three generations of Americans, so what is the current problem with rice cereal? Here is a useful video showing how to prepare Rice Cereal for babies.
The Current Problem with Rice Cereal
The problem with rice cereal in this twenty-first century is the rice. Or more precisely, where and how rice is grown. Rice, in the United States, is cultivated in California, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Mississippi. Many of the fields where rice is grown was also used to grow cotton and tobacco, crops that have had arsenic used as insecticides. Over time, the arsenic from the insecticides settled into the soil. Rice is grown in standing water and does an excellent job of wicking up inorganic arsenic, which is the harmful form of it, out of the soil. While this is good news in the long run for the environment, it is bad news for rice growers who would like to be able to sell their product.
Can the Rice Grown on These Fields be Eaten?
Fortunately, yes, the rice can be eaten. The arsenic content can be combatted by washing the rice and by cooking it in extra amounts of water and straining off the extra water. Some nutrients are lost this way, but the arsenic content is thus greatly reduced.
But that brings us back to rice cereal. Since the dried flakes in Gerber cereals are intended to be mixed with a liquid and then consumed, it would be difficult or impossible to wash the cereal flakes. Fortunately, the Gerber company is aware of the problem and is taking steps to ensure that their baby cereals are safe. Here is a quotation from the company:
“You carefully consider every bite your baby eats, and so do we. That’s why we monitor and test our rice ingredients and cereals for safety. We test for levels of substances like arsenic, which can occur naturally in soil and water and enter into crops, such as rice, as they grow. In 2017, all of our test results found arsenic levels for rice used in our infant rice cereals were below the proposed FDA guidance level of 100 ppb.”
Some Agencies are Not So Sure
Following a 2012 letter from the Consumers Union to USDA, FDA set guidelines for the amount of arsenic allowable in rice as of 2016. An article from Watchblog suggests that more could be done to safeguard the amount of arsenic in rice, especially in infant rice cereal. It recommends greater coordination between USDA and FDA to improve the situation.
USDA currently recommends and alternative method of watering rice crops, which involves alternately flooding and drying the fields. FDA recommends cooking rice as you would pasta and draining off the excess water.
Gerber assures parents that they are testing their cereal and keeping it below FDA recommended levels, but also point out that they do have other lines of single grain cereals, including oatmeal and wheat.
Parents whose diet includes a lot of rice also have the option of selecting rice from California, one of the areas in the US that is least affected by the arsenic problem, or purchasing rice imported from areas that have a low incidence of arsenic in the fields. Well cooked rice can be pureed and strained, then fed to an infant.
Alternatives to Rice Cereal
Rice cereal doesn’t have to be your baby’s first food. There are a number of alternatives. Number one on the list is certified gluten free oatmeal. Oatmeal naturally cooks up into a thick paste that can be thinned with formula or breast milk for greater palatability. Other cereals are barley or millet. Avocado is a good first food. Ripe avocados are naturally soft and naturally nutritious. Pumpkin or squash can be pureed for infants. If you have your own garden or access to a good farmer’s market, carrots, peas, or broccoli are fair game for making into home-made baby food. Introduce fruits such as apple, pear, or peach puree a little later to help prevent your little from getting hooked on sweet stuff, but never forget the ever-edible banana which comes almost completely baby-ready.
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