When starting complementary feeding or weaning as it’s traditionally referred to, porridge is usually one of the best foods to start with. Porridge due to its semi-solid state is both soft and easy to swallow for the child making it ideal to start with as compared to solid food or plain liquids which may not be as energy and nutrient dense as porridge.
However, despite porridge being one of the most commonly used weaning foods, cases of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are still quite prevalent in the country. This could be attributed to the type of porridges used and how they’re prepared.
Ideally the porridge should be thick and not watery because this merely dilutes its nutrient content, and because children’s stomachs are quite small, they end up getting full mainly on water and starch. However even with thick porridges, another challenge that has arisen in the past few years is the mixing of multiple flours.
This multiple flours include the likes of maize, sorghum, millet, finger millet, wheat, soya beans, and peanuts. The rationale behind this is not a bad one since by mixing all these flours one’s intended goal is that of achieving a nutrient diverse meal.
However as we are about to see, this assumed nutrient diversity often comes at a cost which undermines it’s expected benefits.
The Problem of Mixing Multiple Flours
Cereals in a Market
(Photo by Megillionvoices (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
The problem itself is that of the nutrient interactions that happen when such as porridge is digested and absorbed.
To put it in simple words, there are certain substances that are found in our foods, particularly grains and legumes/pulses that interfere with the absorption of other important nutrients that they and other foods have. They’re usually, and appropriately referred to as anti-nutrients due to this behaviour.
The anti-nutrient of most concern in this porridges is called phytic acid and it usually inhibits the absorption of vital minerals like iron and calcium, both of which are needed in adequate amounts in a growing child.
Remember also that iron is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world, and therefore the effects of such anti-nutrients are potentially not just evident in children but even adults, particularly women of child bearing age who have higher iron requirements. If such a deficiency is not corrected, the resultant effect is a disease called Iron Deficiency Anaemia (IDA).
By mixing multiple grain flours one therefore actually increases the content of this anti-nutrients. Legume flours are good additions as they are good sources of protein and iron, but this additional mineral benefit stands to be diminished by the effects of anti-nutrients they contain.
On Mixing Omena Flour
It’s also quite a common practice to add omena (dried fresh water sardines) flour to some porridge mixtures, which besides providing protein are also good sources of calcium which may be affected by this same anti-nutrients.
To complicate matters, in the case of omena flour, one cannot guarantee the flour actually gets cooked properly since it’s essentialy an animal protein and thus is not quick to cook as the rest of the other starchy flours it’s mixed along with. The same holds for the legume flours.
As a result, it’s going unnoticed that people are actually consuming uncooked flours since they’re not factoring the difference in the content of these flours to adjust the preparation and cooking time accordingly – it’s assumed that they’re all just flours.
For this reason, it’s advised to not use flours from legumes (lablab beans “njahi” flour is quite common), omena and even vegetables/herbs (Amaranth “terere”, stinging nettle “thafai”
etc) for both you and your child. Just stick with the usual cereals then enrich this mix with recommended foods that we discuss next.
Effects of Multiple Flour Porridges in Growing Children
At the end of the day, children that are primarily fed on such porridges may not get adequate amount of this vital nutrients especially the affected minerals (iron, calcium etc.)
This situation could be further worsened if:
- such children are not breastfeeding as breast milk itself supplies some of this minerals and two,
- if the porridge and other foods the children are being weaned on is not balanced, hence increasing their risk of malnutrition
- if they’re sick, especially with a condition like malaria that further stresses their iron requirements
Enrich Instead of Using Multiple Flours
Photo by Megillionvoices (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The expected benefit behind this practice of mixing multiple flours is clearly to make it more nutritious. Fortunately, that can be achieved without having to depend on mixing many flours.
If you’re going to mix flours, it’s usually recommended that you don’t use more than two cereals (e.g maize, millet, sorghum). But a cereal only porridge is not that nutritious, actually it’s mostly starch.
To make it more nutritious, you need to enrich it with other foods, and in this case not additional cereal flours. Instead you can add some groundnuts paste/flour, margarine, vegetable oil, butter, ghee etc.
Enriching should be done with small but adequate amounts i.e the amount of porridge should be factored in.
Enriching with Legume Flours
You can also enrich porridge by adding a legume flour like cow pea, pigeon pea or soya bean flour. However since legume flours require proper preparation before making into flours, and since it’s difficult to ascertain whether this has been done with what is sold in the market, it’s advisable to prepare them on your own or just stick to enriching with the aforementioned foods.
A good alternative to using legume flour is using groundnuts (peanuts) paste/flour which is not only rich in protein as is the case with legumes, but also in healthy fats.
To reduce the presence of anti-nutrients in cereal flours one can use germinated or fermented cereal flours. Porridges made from this flours have the added benefits in that iron is better absorbed from them and also fermented porridge is much easier to digest compared to plain porridge.
They’re also much safer since bacteria and other germs will not grow easily in fermented porridge.1 Preparing this flours is not complicated and doesn’t involve additional equipment other than what you normally find at homes.
You can find more info on how to prepare germinated or fermented cereal flours as well as legume flours in the FAO site here. From the same page you’ll also find some good porridge recipes that you can try making for your child(ren).
1. FAO – Topic 7. Feeding Young Children Aged Over Six Months
2. Standard Digital – Is your child getting the right food mix?