Ask Amma

Downside to whole grains?

In Yes / No on 23 August 2012 at 3:42 am
Seeing how difficult it is to move to whole grains after being used to everything white from rice to bread to semya, nan, pasta, etc, I wanted to make it easier for my children by serving whole grains from the start.  Recently a friend told me that giving brown rice cereal as first food is not as good as giving white rice cereal, because of the phytic acid issue (the brown rice contains more phytic acid than white).  Now I am confused, what should I do? 
– Mother of 4-year and 4-month old in Mysore
Several issues are bundled up in this question.  First food, digestion and nutrient absorption, and food preparation.  And brown rice.  Amma is ready 🙂
First, first food.  Obviously the “first” in question is not breastmilk, which is normally the first and only food for babies for at least the first six months of life.  Six months is not a fixed target for the entrance into solid foods.  These days when deadlines and schedules seem to hover over everything people often forget that a baby’s readiness for solid foods depends on maturity of the digestive system, and there is no benefit to introducing solids before a baby is ready for them. Breastmilk contains all the nutrients and calories a baby needs, greater in quantity, quality, and bio-availability than any solid food has to offer.  Knowing this, why would one rush?  I remember reading in Dr. Sears Baby Book that by age 1, it would be normal for a baby at age 1 to get 90% of nutrition from breastmilk and 50% at age 2.  (I don’t have the book in front of me but if an alert reader can find me the page number, I will gratefully add it.)
So when people talk about “first food,” one must keep in mind that in a healthy diet, solid food gradually and humbly complements breastmilk, which remains the predominant source of nutrients while preparing the maturing digestive system. 
Cooked Idli
Every part of the world will have its own traditional first foods.  Millets are a common first grain in many parts of India.  Partly following local traditions while keeping an eye schedules published by Kelly Mom and Dr. Sears, I did not introduce rice until 9 months, and it was soaked, fermented, ground and steamed into idlis.  And yes, it was brown or red rice with only outer husk removed, what we call whole-grain rice.   Combined with black gram (urad dal) also soaked, ground and fermented.  Without removing the peel.  These were our daughter’s first idlis and remain a regular breakfast or evening snack favourite in our home.   
Little did I know how that all this soaking and fermenting played an important nutritional role.
Which brings us to the second point, what you call the phytic acid issue.  Phytic acid inhibits the human body’s absorption of certain minerals including iron and zinc, calcium and magnesium.  Food preparation methods that counter that effect include:
  • soaking
  • cooking 
  • sprouting
  • fermenting 
  • eating with foods of ph below 5 such as lemon or tomato juice (probably also tamarind)  
Yougurt contributes not only to lower ph but also Probiotic lactobacilli which is one of several digestive microflora present in fermented food that enhance nutrient absorption.  Yougurt-and-rice, anyone?
So I would keep these in mind while preparing and serving whole grains, and also consider other sources of iron.  For nursing babies, whose other source is breast milk, just keep some gap – 20-30 minutes is what I remember hearing – between breastfeeding and solids.  As Dr. Jay Gordon says, “Any solid foods will decrease iron absorption from breastmilk.”   Introduce the solids gradually, keeping pace with the maturing digestive system, while relying on breast milk as a safety net so that you can explore the world of solid foods freely.
Let us close with a few words on idlis: 
A 2007 study comparing availability of zinc and iron in idli batter (made from rice and lentils) before and after fermentation found that the process significantly increased bioaccessibility of both minerals.

“Influence of germination and fermentation on bioaccessibility of zinc and iron from food grains.”
Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 Mar;61(3):342-8. Epub 2006 Sep 13.Hemalatha SPlatel KSrinivasan K. 

as cited in Sandor Ellix Katz, The Art of Fermentation (2012), pg. 25. 

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