Grains – helpful or detrimental to a baby’s health?
I’ve come to find that giving grains to babies is a bit of a hot and sticky topic. Many (I’d say most) pediatricians recommend starting babies on grains as a first food, often in the form of rice cereal, while some argue that babies can’t digest the grains until they are 1 or 2 years of age.
Many crunchy mamas & natural living bloggers also seem to side with the no-grains approach. From what I have been able to see,their arguments are mostly centered around salivary & pancreatic Amylase (an important digestive enzyme) being undeveloped in young children. Though I feel that amylase levels are important, I believe there may be more to the picture.
I wanted to be fully convinced before starting my own babies on solids, so I embarked upon an incredible journey through seas of clinical studies, chemistry course work, medical journals, and yes, even more blogs. I eventually came across what I feel is the bigger picture, and would like to share that with you today. Here we go!
Can Babies Digest Grains?
We must first begin by establishing whether or not babies can even digest grains. Amylase is the main digestive enzyme needed to break down starches and grains and it comes in two main forms: salivary & pancreatic.
Salivary amylase travels via saliva & begins the process of breaking down complex carbohydrates in the mouth (from polysaccharides to disaccharides) during the process of chewing.
Salivary amylase then travels to the stomach with the partially digested foods & hangs out for a while, continuing to break starches down until gastric pH deactivates the amylase.
A few important points to note:
- Salivary amylase can only kick start the digestion of grains and starches (source)
- Babies possess lower percentages of amylase in their saliva than adults do until they reach about 19 mos of age (source)
- Saliva production is stimulated by chewing, so babies that are spoon fed purées will stimulate less saliva production than those who are able to chew their food.
Pancreatic amylase is produced in the pancreas and meets up with the starches in the small intestine. Here it works to break the now disaccharides down into monosaccharides, enabling them to then be absorbed into the body as energy.
As you probably already guessed, babies produce far lower levels of pancreatic amylase than adults, meaning this stage of digestion isn’t quite the picnic for babies as it is for us mature eaters. Amounts of pancreatic amylase are 3% at birth and begin to rise around 7-8 months (source), rising to full adult levels by 2 years (source).
I have read many places that the arrival of molars signify the production of digestive enzymes. I have yet to find many medical sources for this, but this tooth-organ relationship chart based on TCM shows molars being related to the large intestine, stomach, and pancreas. We really like this concept and developed our family’s timeline of first foods based on the arrival of teeth.
So, where are we so far?
I think we can agree that babies do lack proper amounts of amylase needed to digest starches and grains in the same way that adults do. But, hold tight, because we’ve only scratched the surface.
Studies have shown that the low pH levels of infants’ stomachs can actually preserve salivary amylase, enabling it to stay active for longer periods than in adults!
Gastric pH allows salivary amylase to remain active in the small intestine and it has been postulated that for infants salivary amylase has an important role in starch hydrolysis in the duodenum. (Sevenhuysen et al, 1984)
That is exciting to me, that when something in the body falls short there are often other barriers, layers, functions (you name it) that kick in for self-healing and sustenance. I’m not sure exactly how much more effective infant amylase is than adult, but it is definitely worth consideration in this debate.
There is a high percentage of amylase also found in breast milk. This supplemental amylase in breastfed babies could also play a role in further digesting starches.
Human milk amylase could thus contribute to the breast-fed infant’s ability to digest starch. (Lindberg & Skude, 1982)
Human breast milk contains many enzymes, some of which may assist in digestion; (Heitlinger, 1982)
…starch supplements are better tolerated in breast-fed infants, because of the compensation provided by human milk amylase… (Hamosh, 1996)
How empowering! It is so like the natural mama-baby connection to have bodies that work together for health and well-being. That being said, I believe counting on breast milk to digest grains is a BIG IF.
Are all babies breastfed? No.
Are all breastfed babies nursed frequently enough & in sufficient quantities to enable hydrolysis of starch? Doubt it.
Will all frequently nursed babies continue this practice until adult levels of amylase are achieved? Unlikely.
It’s an opportunity, but not a guarantee.
This is an intestinal enzyme that, for all intents and purposes, is on starch clean-up duty. He jumps in and helps pancreatic amylase breakdown whatever is undigested once the starch reaches the small intestine.
This study states adult levels of glucoamylase are reached at approximately 1 month of age, meaning that babies do have more going for them than low levels of the salivary and pancreatic amylase that was first mentioned.
We’ve been talking about whether or not grains can be digested, but at the other side of that question we also need to consider what happens to undigested food?
Some argue that undigested food putrefies in the intestines. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition claims that undigested starches decrease abosorbtion of other nutrients (source).
The Bottom Line
There is certainly room for concern based on low levels of amylase production. That being said, I think we have some amazing, built-in solutions like:
- low gastric pH in babies
- the after-party janitor, Glucoamylase
- the probability that a lot of moms reading this will be regularly breastfeeding
One researcher comments:
Since some infants do not tolerate amounts of starch recorded herein it is prudent to delay the introduction of starch containing foods in the diet. (Sevenhuysen et al, 1984)”
Touche. Therefore, as a matter of prudence and what we know to be safe, our family has opted to wait until the apparance of 1-yr molars to introduce grains, and 2-yr molars (or 2 years of age) to introduce wheat or gluten.