Rice Cereal Controversy: Does It Make Kids Fat?

VIDEO: A frequent recommendation for babies, white rice cereal, is now questioned.
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A baby's first bite into solid food is among the milestones every parent anticipates. And for 50 years many pediatricians have recommended that parents initially feed their solid food-ready babies white rice cereal.

White rice cereal is a gluten-free, and an allergy-free option, that most babies find easy to digest. But Dr. Alan Greene, a pediatrician at Stanford University, who started a campaign called "White Out," is out to turn that long-held belief on its head.

"I have been studying nutrition very carefully for more than a decade now and one of the things that I have become convinced of is that white rice cereal can predispose to childhood obesity," said Greene. "In fact I think it is the tap root of the child obesity epidemic."

Besides its touted digestion benefits, Greene said white rice cereal is also high in calories and made of processed white flour.

"The problem is that it is basically like feeding kids a spoonful of sugar," said Greene.

Instead, Greene advises that whole grain solid foods, such as pureed fruits and vegetables combined with whole grain cereal instead of white rice is a healthier option for babies.

"The difference between white rice and brown rice is huge," said Greene. "White rice is basically 94 percent starch. Brown rice though is 25 percent other stuff: protein, essential fats, and minerals, all kinds of good stuff."

Greene launched his "White Out" campaign in 2010 with the goal to entirely rid stores and babies bowls of white rice cereal by Thanksgiving. While the campaign has attracted thousands of parents to join the cause, some experts and even the baby food industry itself aren't buying the claim that starting a baby on white rice cereal could lead to childhood obesity.

In fact, Gerber, the number one seller of white rice cereal in the U.S., told ABC News company officials, "are not aware of any scientific studies that support the theory that white rice cereal contributes to childhood obesity, and welcome the opportunity to review any relevant scientific data."

According to Keith Ayoob, an associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, pediatricians should focus more on proven studies when it comes to obesity.

"Obesity is about an excess of calories, not about a particular food," said Ayoob. "The idea of focusing so much attention on brown rice versus white rice-enriched cereal is really taking the thunder away from strategies that would be more appropriate."

ABC News' chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser agreed and added that parenting behaviors also contribute to a baby's health. Besser said parents who feed their babies to quiet them down, rather than when they are hungry, are more likely to contribute to an overweight baby than choosing to feed them white or brown rice cereal.

"Balanced diet is learning to feed a child when they're hungry, not as a means of effecting behavior and pacifying," said Besser.

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't differentiate between white or brown rice cereals, but instead recommends any cereal that indicates it is iron-fortified.

Still, Greene said just by looking at the ingredients of white rice cereal, it's not hard to see that there are limited benefits to the food.

"I'm saying you might as well be putting soda in the bottle as feeding the white rice cereal," said Greene. "It would be soda with added vitamins [and] added iron. But yeah, that's what you are doing.

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