Safe Infant Formula Guide

baby bottle

IMPORTANT UPDATE: After publishing this guide, we discovered two European formula brands that, while difficult and expensive to obtain, are superior to anything available in the U.S. (include the “Good Stuff” below). For a breakdown of the ingredients of these two formulas, read our blog post, HiPP Vs. Holle: Which European Infant Formula is Healthier?

Needless to say, I’m pro breastfeeding. I nursed Felix well past his second birthday, and will probably do the same with Wolf. I don’t feel compelled to belabor the point that breast milk is the best food for babies, because even I am sick of hearing about it. Many of my readers and clients–most of whom are amazing moms with beautiful, healthy children–formula feed. The one thing that all formula-feeding moms want to know is, what is the safest, healthiest formula I can give my baby? After months of research, Gimme the Good Stuff has the answer.

As always, the goal here is to make choosing the safest product easy; we’ve researched formulas so you don’t have to, and I am going to try to make this as simple as possible, even though this issue is vast and complicated. If you’re in information overload and don’t even feel like reading further, let me bottom line it and say that really the only formula you should be using is Baby’s Only Organic Formula.

Okay, for the rest of you who want a bit more info, here goes. When it comes to choosing a safe infant formula, it’s all about avoiding the bad stuff. Here’s what you DON’T want in your baby’s formula:

  • Non-organic ingredients.  Organic alone doesn’t make a formula safe, but it’s a good start. Conventional formula likely contains GMOs, traces of pesticides, milk contaminated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and oils extracted with hexane.
  • Soy. Soy formula is usually only recommended if a baby suffers from dairy intolerance. If you’re buying non-organic formula, the soy is likely genetically modified. Synthetic l-methionine is added to soy formula to meet nutrition requirements, but because it is produced with things like hydrogen cyanide and other air pollutants, it is prohibited in European organic foods (meaning there is no such thing as organic soy-based infant formula in Europe). Soy-based formula contains soy protein isolates, which my mother the health coach describes this way: “highly processed soybeans that have been chemically altered to no longer resemble a whole food.” Soy formula also contains high levels of plant-derived estrogens (phytoestrogens). In fact, the concentrations of phytoestrogens detected in the blood of infants fed soy formula were shown to be 13,000 to 22,000 times greater than the concentrations of natural estrogens–the effects of this are simply unknown.
  • Palm oil. Human breast milk contains palmitic acid, so many formulas contain palm oil to try to replicate this nutrient. Unfortunately, palm oil is not properly absorbed by infants, and infants who drink formula with palm oil are shown to have decreased bone density.
  • DHA/ARAMost formulas now boast the addition of essential fatty acids DHA and ARA. While this sounds like a good thing, these oils are extracted by methods that involve neurotoxic hexane–even in formulas carrying the organic label (why the USDA has caved to lobbyists and allowed this to happen is a topic for another day). While it seems that formula-fed infants would be missing out on these healthy fats that are found in breast milk, many studies have shown no benefits when DHA and ARA are added to formula. The problem may be that types of DHA and ARA typically found in infant formula come from types of algae and fungus about which little is known, and which does not naturally occur in any human diet.
  • Carrageenan. You will find this additive in tons of stuff in your health food store, and infant formula is no exception. Derived from seaweed, carrageenan helps stabilize liquid formula, but numerous animal studies suggest that it leads to intestinal inflammation and colon tumors. The European Union has outlawed the use of carrageenan in all infant formula, but in the United States it appears in both conventional and organic varieties.
  • Preservatives. Synthetic preservatives are sometimes added to prevent the oils in formula from spoiling. Two that have snuck into even organic infant formulas: beta carotene and ascorbic palmitate.
  • Synthetic nutrients. There are several synthetic nutrients that you will find in organic formulas, none of which is legal in the European Union (for organic formulas). Look out for lutein (hexane-extracted from marigolds), lycopene (produced with toluene, a neurotoxic benzene derivative), nucleotides (produced from chemically treated yeast), taurine (processed with carcinogenic sulfuric acid), and l-carnitine (which was banned by the National Organic Standards Board because of concerns over carcinogenic properties). Unfortunately, even the formula we recommend below (the lone Good Stuff in this category!) does contain some of these synthetics in order to meet FDA nutrition requirements.
  • Certain sugars. Breastmilk is naturally super sweet, so formulas invariably contain added sugars. The sweetener that most closely mimics that found in human milk is  lactose, but this cow’s milk-based sweetener is expensive, so many manufacturers instead use plant-based sucrose, which was banned by The European Union in 2009 (except for babies with allergies), because of concerns of over-feeding and subsequent obesity. (The FDA provides no such regulation on what kind of sugars can be used.) Other sweeteners include maltodextrin (made from rice, corn, or potatoes), and “glucose syrup solids,” which is corn syrup solids. In 2012, concerns were raised about formulas sweetened with brown rice syrup when Dartmouth researchers found that organic formula made with organic brown rice syrup contained six times the EPA’s safe limit for arsenic.

One Important Way to Make Formula-Feeding Safer: Filter Your Water!

Tap water may be contaminated with chlorine byproducts, weed killers, insecticides, solvents, lead, BPA, phthalates…the list goes on. Fluoride is present in infant formula, and when combined with fluoridated tap water, infant exposure levels can exceed safe amounts. Email [email protected] for recommendations on great water filters.

One thing you no longer have to worry about when buying formula? BPA. The FDA has finally gotten with the program and banned BPA from formula container linings. Of course, I worry about what’s being used in place of BPA, but still this is a small victory.

Do It Yourself: Homemade Baby Formula

While it is controversial, some of my readers make their own formula. Here is a list of the best recipes.

The Good Stuff

Baby’s Only Organic Formula

While it’s not perfect, Baby’s Only Organic Formula (made by Nature’s One) is far and away the best infant formula option. Here’s why:

  • Baby’s Only is the lone organic formula with a DHA/ARA-free option. And in their formulas that DO contain DHA/ARA, they are the only company to use a non-hexane method of extracting the fatty acids, which is FDA-approved (it’s a water process on egg proteins).
  • product-dairy-01_2Baby’s Only formula is made in the USA by a family-owned business that is not publicly traded.
  • Baby’s Only does not contain palm oil.
  • While this formula is marketed towards toddlers, it does receive the FDA’s approval for infant formula; when I called Nature’s One, they said they call it a “toddler formula” because they believe babies should all be breastfed for at least the first year and they want to encourage that–more points for Baby’s Only!

By the way, I have no affiliation with Baby’s Only, receive no money from them, and haven’t been in touch with them about this guide, other than when I put on my “concerned mom” hat and called them with questions. 

There are a few not-so-great things about Baby’s Only:

  • This formula does contain some synthetic ingredients, such as nucleotides and taurine (both of which are present in ALL formulas and thus unavoidable).
  • Baby’s Only, like all other formulas, contains added sweetener, in this case organic lactose and brown rice syrup. In response to concerns about high arsenic levels, Nature’s One created a high-tech filter that removes inorganic arsenic from brown rice syrup, reducing it to undetectable levels, which has been confirmed by the Consumers Union.

The Bad Stuff

Any infant formulas that are not organic should definitely be avoided, for all of the reasons listed above.

Two definite Bad Stuff brands who don’t even make an organic variety of their formula:

  • Gerber Good Start. This should come as no surprise. Their jarred baby food is also Bad Stuff.
  • Enfamil. For some horrible reason this is the brand I chose for Felix when I needed a nursing break due to bleeding nipples and ran out of pumped milk. Wah!)

The Sneaky Stuff

  • Bright Beginnings Organic Formula, owned by pharma giant PMB, contains maltodextrin, a plant-based sweetener, rather than dairy-based lactose, as well as palm oil.
  • Earth’s Best Organic Formula used to contain organic lactose, but the company has slowly phased it out and it now contains glucose syrup solids (corn syrup solids, a cheap substitute for lactose), as well as palm oil and carrageenan.
  • Parent’s Choice Organic Formula contains maltodextrin, as well as all the other bad stuff.
  • Similac Organic Formula is the only organic formula to contain actual cane sugar, and lots of it. Their ready-to-use formula also contains carrageenan. The only upside? Similac is free of palm oil.
  • Vermont Organics Formula, also owned by PMB Nutritionals, contains palm oil, hexane-extracted DHA/ARA, and organic glucose syrup solids (corn).
  • Whole Foods 365 Organic Formula, also produced by PMB, contains palm oil and corn-based sugars.

To gain deeper insight into the formula manufacturing industry, check out an article written by Charlotte Vallaeys, who is the Director of Farm and Food Policy at The Cornucopia Institute. Her article was immensely helpful as we worked on this Guide. Thank you, Charlotte!