A University of Manitoba nutrition researcher is going to study whether meat or iron-fortified cereal is better as a six-month-old infant’s first solid food.

Okay, I never had any choice when I was six months old, but even then I knew that tasteless gruel straight from a box wasn’t exactly gourmet dining.

Nevertheless, James Friel, a professor in the University of Manitoba’s Department of Human Nutritional Sciences and an expert on infant nutrition, is questioning the Canadian government’s new infant feeding guidelines that say babies’ first solid foods should include “daily or frequent consumption” of meat, poultry or fish, according to a story in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Health Canada is advising pediatricians and parents that to ward off iron-deficiency, which can cause serious complications in infants, animal foods are recommended. In the past, the agency recommended iron-fortified baby cereal, vegetables and fruit as an infant’s first solid food.

“The [new recommendations] are a big disconnect for me,” said Friel, who claimed to be concerned about meat’s potential link to cancer and other diseases.“We tell adults to cut back on red meat. That’s one of our recommendations for lots of reasons, and now we're telling babies to make it one of their first foods. As a scientist, I have so much challenge with that.”

Friel was a member of Health Canada's nine-member advisory panel that helped shape the infant feeding recommendations. The story said he resigned from the committee “over unease about what he calls the lack of scientific data to support feeding meat to infants so early in their development.” According to the article, Friel said discussion during the three meetings he attended in Ottawa became “heated.”

“I’m sitting on a national committee that is making recommendations for all Canadian newborns,” he told the newspaper. “I’m thinking, ‘There's no data. There’s just not enough information.’ The decisions are being made emotional reasons and not scientific reasons.”

Friel stated that he believes breast milk is one of the best foods for babies, providing nutrients and immune protection unlike any other alternative.

No argument there.

As a specialist in human breast milk research, he also believes babies should be breast-fed for as long as possible, although he noted that the iron reserves in mother’s milk diminish after about six months, so parents need to introduce supplementary baby food to prevent anemia and other nutritional deficiencies.

Baby want meat? Or pabulum?

Friel’s $500,000 study, funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR), Canada’s federal research agency, will examine 120 newborns that have been exclusively breast-fed. When the infants are ready to start eating solid foods, they will be divided into three groups and given either meat, iron-fortified cereal, or iron-fortified cereal with fruit. Parents will be asked not to give their babies iron supplements or other cereals.

Friel and his research team plan to find out how the introduction of different solid foods affect the bacterial population in a baby’s gut and whether iron affects the production of free radicals in the colon. They will also measure each food’s impact on blood iron levels. His main goal, he told the newspaper, is to study the effects of meat versus cereal on a baby’s health.

“We desperately need more data before we make these huge public health recommendations,” he said.

Frielargued that, despite their apparent confidence, health professionals really aren’t certain about what infants should eat. “We don’t know,” he said. “Anyone who tells you they know—they're just making it up.”

That may not be entirely accurate.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, while strongly supporting breastfeeding, acknowledged that most American infants are fed some formula by two months old. Thus, its Committee on Nutrition has “strongly advocated” iron fortification of infant formulas and stated that use of low-iron formulas poses an unacceptable risk for iron deficiency during infancy.

More to the point, the American Nutrition Association answered the Canadian challenge head-on in a statement:

“Ask most new mothers what the best first introductory foods are to give her baby when weaning off breast milk and they will most likely go into a regurgitated diatribe, often facilitated by their pediatrician, about the benefits of feeding their babies a combination of grains, legumes and vegetables, most commonly initiated with the introduction of rice cereals. However, if you look at traditional cultures around the world, the first foods are invariably animal products, such as meat, fish and eggs.

“While most mainstream recommendations focus exclusively on grains and legumes for infants, there is perhaps a small glimmer of hope. At least one Western government agency, Health Canada, may be helping lead things back in the right direction.

“In their relatively recent guidelines, Health Canada recommended incorporating meat and eggs as baby’s first foods. These are excellent choices as they provide an excellent complement of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids essential to both the physical and brain development of the infant. Particularly cited was these foods’ iron content . . . [and] numerous studies have found iron deficiency to be linked to issues in brain development.”

Friel said he’s sure his passion about infant feeding won’t affect his study’s outcome.

“Whatever we find will be information that is useful to parents,” he said. “If the data comes out that babies in the meat group are the healthiest and the happiest, then this will be the first study that will show that. I have no problem with that.”

Nor do I.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.