There are many types of baby formula on the market. They’re sold as powders, concentrated liquids and ready-to-feed liquids. Standard formula is cow’s milk based and there are specialty formulas to meet special needs such as lactose-reduced and lactose free formulas for babies who have difficulty digesting natural milk sugar, protein hydrolysate formulas for pre-term and low-birth-weight babies whose delicate stomachs can’t yet handle intact protein. Protein hydrolysate formulas are also for more mature infants who are allergic to milk or soy. Your health care practitioner can help you decide which formula is best for your baby but it’s important to educate yourself as well. In addition to considering the type of formula that best fits your lifestyle and your baby’s needs, knowing something about the ingredients different formulas contain can help you navigate the crowded and confusing formula market and make an informed decision.
As a Paleo parent, you’re committed to sourcing and consuming unprocessed whole foods that are free of environmental contaminants and you’ll want the same for your baby. Although infant formula will never be the whole food that breast milk is, organic brands come closer to Paleo than conventional brands ever will. Organic baby formula is free of GMOs, pesticides, and milk contaminated with antibiotics and growth hormones. Unfortunately, organic formula can contain controversial ingredients that nature did not intend for babies.
There are seven organic formulas available in the U.S.: Bright Beginnings, Earth’s Best Organic, Whole Foods Market 365, Parent’s Choice Organic, Similac Organic, Vermont Organic and Baby’s Only Organic. The makers of Baby’s Only Organic market it as a toddler formula to show their support for breastfeeding but it’s FDA approved for infants. According to a paper written by Charlotte Vallaeys for The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit organic industry watch dog, the following ingredients pose health concerns and should not be included in organic infant formulas:
- Processed Refined Sugars (corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, brown rice syrup with detectable levels of arsenic)
- Palm oil
- DHA and ARA extracted with hexane
- Synthetic Preservatives (Ascorbyl Palmitate and beta-carotene)and Synthetic Nutrients (lutein, lycopene, nucleotides, taurine, l-carnitine, l-methionone)
Vallaeys provides a detailed account of why these ingredients should be avoided and the following is a summary of that information. We’ll see which organic formulas contain some or all of these potentially inflammatory ingredients and which organic formulas are free of them.
Processed Refined Sugars are pervasive in infant formula. Lactose, the sugar found in human breast milk is ideal for babies and was once the main carbohydrate in many organic formulas. However, organic lactose is expensive and most organic brands now contain other sweeteners. Paleo parents, if you see organic glucose syrup solids listed on the ingredients label, know that it is another name for organic corn syrup solids. Maltodextrin, just another name for sugar, may be derived from corn as well.
Bright Beginnings, 365 Organic and Parent’s Choice all contain organic glucose syrup solids and organic maltodextrin. Organic brown rice syrup used by Baby’s Only Organic was once found to contain unacceptable levels of arsenic but the company developed an organic compatible filter that successfully removes all detectable arsenic as confirmed by third party testing.
Similac Organic contains organic maltodextrin and organic sugar and has been criticized for containing way too much. Similac Organic reportedly tastes as sweet as grape juice or Country Time lemonade. At this time, only Earth’s Best and Vermont Organics contain any lactose at all. These brands also contain organic glucose syrup solids.
Palm oil is added to formula to mimic palmitic acid, the predominant saturated fatty acid in breast milk. However, palm oil is structurally different than palmitic acid and poorly absorbed by infants. Palm oil reacts with calcium and forms “soaps” in baby’s intestines, which may decrease the bioavailability of calcium. This “soapy” reaction between palm oil and calcium may also play a role in the constipation experienced by many formula fed babies. In light of this information, it is surprising that almost all of the organic formulas contain palm oil. Only Similac Organic and Baby’s Only Organic do not.
DHA and ARA are fatty acids naturally found in human milk. DHA is particularly important for infant brain and eye development and ARA is added to maintain the natural balance of fatty acids. Because the processing methods for DHA and ARA do not adhere to organic standards, their inclusion in organic formula is very controversial.
DHA and ARA are abundant in the human diet through foods such as fish and eggs. However the DHA and ARA added to infant formulas are extracted from manufactured strains of algae and fungus that are not part of the human diet, and the process uses hexane, a neurotoxic solvent. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has rejected the use of hexane extracted DHA and ARA for use in organic products yet they remain on ingredient lists because the ruling has not been enforced by USDA officials. Fortunately, you do not need DHA and ARA to come form algae and fungus via hexane extraction. Baby’s Only Organic contains DHA and ARA that are water extracted from egg yolks.
Carrageenan provides no nutrition to formula and is used solely as a stabilizer. Known to cause gut inflammation in animals, the NOSB voted to prohibit its inclusion in infant formulas but it remains in use due to a lack of enforcement. Earth’s Best and Similac Organic ready-to-feed formula both contain carrageenan.
Synthetic Preservatives and Nutrients refers to ingredients that have been manufactured and toxic chemicals are often used in the process. For instance synthetic lutein, a carotenoid naturally found in fruits and vegetables is extracted with hexane (hexane again!) from conventionally grown marigolds likely treated with pesticides. Synthetic lycopene, also a carotenoid normally found in tomatoes, undergoes extraction with Toluene, a neurotoxic solvent like hexane. All of the preservatives and nutrients listed above have been banned for use in organic products in Europe and rejected by the NOSB yet remain in infant formula because they are not banned in the United States. One or more of these synthetic substances can be found in every organic formula.
What can we conclude from all this? The organic formula that most closely meets the standards called for in the Cornucopia report is Baby’s Only Organic. Although formula will never be a whole food or contain all the enzymes, bioactive compounds and other non-repicable components of breast milk, Baby’s Only Organic takes care to adhere to organic principles more closely than any other organic baby formula and is therefore the closest to Paleo that formula feeding gets. Check out this handy reference table for a consolidated look at all the data discussed in this post: http://www.cornucopia.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Infant.Formula.Comparison.pdf
Are you wondering if there are alternatives to formula feeding? Well, there certainly are. Informal milk sharing is an option and organizations such as Eats on Feets, Milk Share and Human Milk 4 Human Babies, are community based milk sharing networks. However, it is essential that donated milk be safe and La Leche League recommends the use of licensed human milk banks such as the Human Milk Banking Association of North America or other regulated and medically supervised human milk collection centers. Perhaps you want to make your own formula? Although even they admit it’s controversial, the Westin A. Price Foundation provides recipes and how-to instructions.
Always review your infant feeding choices with your health care practitioner who knows you and your concerns, as well as your baby’s individual needs. Your provider can help determine the best formula and/or milk sharing options for you and your baby.