Can starchy foods be harming your baby?

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

Kathy Fray

Kathy is a wife; mother of three; north Auckland self-employed midwife; weekly Parenting columnist; founding director of BabyOK™ Products (producers of the renowned Babe-Sleeper); and author of NZ’s No.1 guide for new mums “OH BABY…Birth, Babies & Motherhood Uncensored” and the sequel “OH GROW UP…Toddlers to PreTeens Decoded”. You can find out more about Kathy on her website.

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