Infant cereals. Is there life beyond infant cereals?

Infant cereals are usually the first food that baby's eat after months of breastfeeding (or milk formula) exclusively. As it is the first delicacy that will be tried by our babies, it makes sense to choose quality cereals, but are we sure about what we are really giving our children?

Let's start from the beginning: infant cereals with or without gluten?

The age in which to introduce gluten has been subject to controversy and fierce discussions: is it better at four months? or better at six months? The recommendations of the WHO on breastfeeding are clear: throughout the first six months, the baby should only consume breast milk. After this, we can include cereals.

What does this mean? It's simple: given that, in principle, babies should not eat cereals before six months of age, and after this age their digestive system is ready to consume gluten, gluten-free cereals are not necessary. That's one less thing to think about.

The 'standard' baby porridge, under the microscope

With a few rare exceptions, parents tend to purchase commercially available baby porridge after six months. The range of options for these products is infinite, and the word that keeps cropping up is 'multigrain'. This word covers a 'wide spectrum', ranging from 5 grains to 555. Additionally, we can find porridge with milk, fibre, muesli, biscuits, etc. With all that's out there, the child could have a different porridge every day without repeating any!

So what's behind all these names? If we scratch at the surface a little, beyond all the attributes, which, in principle, sound healthy for our babies, we will find refined flours that contain 20-30% sugar. Yes, you read it right: 20-30% sugar.

But you can get 'sugar-free' baby porridge... Is that better?

In the world of baby porridges, we need to pull out our magnifying glass to spot those that are 'sugar free' and those that have 'no added sugar'. As it so happens, most can be found in the latter group.

I suggest you spend a couple of minutes online looking into any baby porridge that is supposedly 'healthy'. Look at those that claim to have no 'added sugars'. If we look at the nutrition table, we can see that the sugar content in this porridge can be 20-30%. How is possible for them to contain so much sugar, when cereals themselves don't have that much sugar, and particularly when they haven't added any?

There's no need to hire a detective to solve the mystery: the key is that industrial cereals are normally dextrinated or hydrolysed. So what does this mean? It means that in the industry, the starch, which is formed of sugars that are linked together in a chain, is processed by cutting it into little pieces, so that the sugars are separated.

Sure, it's fair to say that there is no added sugar... because they don't add any sugar; but by processing the starch like this, the product still ends up containing sugar. It doesn't matter whether it's added or part of the original product. And the bad news comes with this sugar from hydrolysed flours! it behaves the same way in the baby's body.

Is it advisable for baby porridge to be 20-30% sugar?

La recomendación actual es que los niños menores de un año no tomen azúcar. 0% sugar. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that babies should not even drink juice for this same reason. Why? Whether the sugars are added or part of the original product, when they are free, as is the case with juices or dextrinated cereals, babies will detect the sweet flavour and we will be encouraging them to develop a preference towards these flavours.

When it comes down to it, once kids get to sample the sweetness of porridges with 20-30% sugar, it's not so easy to get them to shift their palates towards oat or rice porridges! Sure, it's not impossible, but it's terribly complicated!

Are there any commercially available baby porridges with no added sugar or dextrin?

Yes, they exist, but they're not so easy to find! We can recognise them by searching for the nutritional information table on the packaging. The sugars box will say approximately 1%. 1%! Between 1% and the 30% from before, there's quite a different, wouldn't you say? The 'minor' disadvantage of these baby porridges is that they tend to be expensive.

What is the best cereal option for a baby?

Realistically, we don't need to make life more complicated or purchase specific cereals. The truth is, after six months of age, babies can eat any kind of cereal. Yes, there is no cosmic reason that prevents a baby from eating cereals, such as rice. Why not give a baby cooked rice in porridge, or crushed with a fork? Another good option are porridge oats. We can cook them and mash them with milk. This is a great option where we can also introduce fruits, such as bananas.

And I know, we're all a little rushed nowadays and it's easier to add cereals from a box than to make your own porridge, but at some point we will need to start 'cooking' for our children. Today you'll cook oats and tomorrow you'll cook lentils, what's the difference?

There are many benefits to choosing natural cereals: on the one hand, the baby gets used to real flavours and textures, and on the other, it's far cheaper!

Conclusion: baby porridge, yes or no?

The majority of baby food we find on the market, with their 20-30% sugar content, is not proscribed, but they are never the best option when starting with supplementary foods. If we don't want to cook up oats, rice or other cereals at home, we can always resort to these formats. But of course, if we're going to do that, we need to make sure that we opt for quality! Look for baby porridges that are produced from whole grains and without dextrins. They're a little harder to find, but are becoming more popular.

Remember, when it comes to supplementary feeding, it's important to start well from day one.



Article written by Marián García, Doctorate in Pharmacy and a dietician-nutritionist. She teaches the Bachelor's Degree in Nutrition at the Isabel I University, and shares her work across the media, including La 1 (Saber vivir), La 2, RNE and the 20minutos newspaper. She is also the author of various books, and the blog 'Boticaria García', which receives more than a million visits per month.



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