As the parent, it’s your choice what first food your baby will encounter. And if you’ve heard about potential dangers of rice cereal for babies, you might be inclined to skip it.
The good news is, you’re totally fine to just never use rice cereal (or any other baby cereal!). In fact, there’s plenty of reasons (including toxic chemicals) to avoid it.
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Let’s look a bit at the history of baby cereal and why it’s not necessary now, as well as the specific dangers of rice for babies. And don’t worry, I’ll give you some great tips for better first foods for your baby.
History of rice cereal
Although I scoured the internet, I couldn’t find the specific history of rice cereal. I could, however, find details on how the use of baby cereal came into practice.
In the late 1800s through early 1900s, manufacturers and pediatricians worked to develop an infant formula that would feed babies adequately. Usually, formula was based on diluted evaporated cow’s milk with cream and/or sugar added to make the protein / fat / sugar content closer to that of human milk. No one really thought about vitamins and minerals in formula or breast milk at the time.
By 1915, basically all cow’s milk (including evaporated milk) was pasteurized. While this process killed germs and kept milk fresh longer, it also destroyed vitamins in the milk. As a result, infants fed formula only often developed rickets and other diseases of malnutrition. They needed a supplement of some kind.
In 1938, three Canadian pediatricians developed an infant cereal they called Pablum. It contained finely ground wheat, oats, corn, iron, bone meal, and alfalfa leaves. It was like a powdered multivitamin for infants.
Pablum made a huge difference in the health of infants and toddlers and was a great step forward in infant health. Babies thrived on formula and Pablum.
But since then, formula has improved greatly to include essential vitamins and minerals. Plus, significantly more babies breastfeed now than then (fewer than 30% of mothers initiated breastfeeding in 1965). We no longer need baby cereal for vitamins and minerals anymore.
Dangers of rice cereal
Now, parents are often told to choose an iron-fortified, single grain cereal for their baby’s first food. And rice, with its low allergen content, is a very common choice.
But here’s the problem: Rice is often very high in arsenic. According to the WHO, arsenic is naturally found in soil and water. Because of this, arsenic can also end up in crops grown in contaminated areas.
Arsenic has many negative health impacts. It damages the immune system and leads to increased risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. In addition, arsenic is a carcinogen. So anything we can do to avoid our child’s exposure to arsenic is a good thing.
Rice is the worst crop for arsenic contamination. This is due to two reasons: First, rice is grown on a flooded paddy. All that extra water allows rice to uptake extra arsenic (and rice is unique in that it uptakes arsenic really well).
Secondly, rice is grown in areas that have been historically treated for pest control with arsenic-containing pesticides. Even though much less arsenic pesticide is used now, the arsenic left from decades past won’t break down. There’s not a good way to remove the arsenic from the soil, so it’s just left there.
Does all baby rice cereal have arsenic?
All that said, baby rice cereal is often very high in arsenic. So if you feed your child with rice cereal daily (or even several times a week), you’re significantly increasing their risk for many long-term health effects.
Unfortunately, buying organic rice cereal won’t remove the risk of arsenic exposure. Remember, this isn’t an issue of “just don’t spray pesticides.” Arsenic is already present in the soil where rice is grown, and there’s no good way to remove it.
RELATED: 5 ways to avoid pesticides in your food
In fact, studies have repeatedly found arsenic in organic baby rice cereal. So buying organic won’t change things.
In the same vein, making your own homemade baby rice cereal won’t remove the arsenic either. You’re still using rice.
RELATED: Is homemade baby food safer than store bought?
So honestly, your best bet is to just not give your child rice cereal.
Plus, rice cereal is really just a “filler” food. There’s no real nutrients, unless the baby cereal is fortified with iron or vitamins. Breastmilk and formula already has all the nutrition your child needs up to six months and beyond.
And if you do delayed cord clamping (until it stops pulsing), the cord blood that is transferred to your newborn gives them enough iron stores until they start eating solids. But if you’re still worried about your baby having enough iron, you can get a supplement from your pediatrician to add to a bottle.
Better first foods for baby instead of rice cereal
Fortunately, there are many better alternatives for your little one instead of rice cereal. They have more nutrition, are better tasting, and are more interesting for your baby anyways!
And while you can start with purees if you want, but have you heard of baby led weaning? The premise is that you give your child sticks and chunks of soft solid food (if you can squish it between two fingers, you’re good) and generally let them eat what the family eats. It’s much easier for you, and actually has some great health benefits for baby!
RELATED: What is baby-led weaning (and why I love it)
Here are some of my (and my kids’) favorite first baby foods:
- Avocado – Babies love the richness of avocado, plus it’s a neutral flavor. I also like that it’s not sweet.
- Creamed spinach – Mixing finely chopped cooked spinach with a little breastmilk or formula has been a success in my household.
- Banana – This is a super easy first fruit to give your baby. If you gently squeeze the banana, it will naturally split into three “sticks” that are perfect size for chubby little baby hands.
- Butternut squash – Cut it into little sticks (not cubes) before you roast it to make it easy to hold.
- Steamed cauliflower or broccoli florets – Just make sure they’re pretty mushy.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention sweet potatoes. That’s because sweet potatoes also tend to be high in heavy metals like lead. Butternut squash is a better alternative.
And yes, you can totally season baby’s food before you serve it. Garlic, cumin, chili powder, ginger, even a little pepper are all okay for your baby (and if they are breastfed, they have already tried these flavors in your milk). Just avoid salting the food you serve your baby.
Is it safe to eat rice?
Does that mean that you and your kids should never eat rice? Not necessarily. Here’s a few tips so you can minimize the amount of arsenic your family gets when you eat rice.
Even though there’s nutrients in the bran, you should choose white rice instead of brown. Most of the arsenic is stored in the hull of rice, so removing it (as done with white rice) will make it safer.
Also rinse your rice well before cooking. This simple act will remove
To remove even more arsenic, parboil your rice for 5 minutes before draining, replacing the water, and then cooking it the rest of the way (as described in this Nature article).
To get rice with the least amount of arsenic in it, choose Basmati rice from California, India, or Pakistan.
Conclusions on skipping rice cereal
If you were thinking about skipping rice cereal for your baby, I hope this article makes you more confident that it’s totally okay to do so. Like I mentioned, I have never given any of my four kids rice cereal, and they’re all doing well.
Rice cereal is a holdover from Pablum, invented to help babies thrive even when being fed incomplete baby formulas from the late 1800s through mid 1900s. With formula’s improvement and breastfeeding on the rise, there is no longer any need for rice cereal in your baby’s diet.
RELATED: Benefits of breastfeeding by age
So yep, skip the rice cereal in favor of more nutritious, satisfying foods after your child reaches six months. And if you’re worried about dangerous chemicals lurking in other parts of your home, be sure to grab your copy of the chemical safety checklist.