UPDATED March 2015
Needless to say, I’m pro breastfeeding. I nursed Felix well past his second birthday, and will probably do the same with Wolfie. 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.
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, although unfortunately there isn’t a single formula on the market to not contain any of these yuckies, so the best you can do is minimize them.
- 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. Unfortunately, even most dairy-based formulas contain soy oils or lecithin.
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. Invest in a good carbon water filter.
- 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/ARA. Most 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 U.S. formula we recommend below 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 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
The Good Stuff
While it’s not perfect, Baby’s Only Organic Formula (made by Nature’s One) is far and away the best widely available 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).
- Baby’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.
Of all the formulas in existence, Holle would probably be the one I would choose for my own babies, despite the fact that it contains maltodextrin and palm oil. This European brand of formula comes from grass-fed, organic, and biodynamic milk, and doesn’t contain a host of the synthetic ingredients that you’ll find in American formulas. It also doesn’t contain soy or corn ingredients. Here’s an update from July 2015: Lebenswert is a newish formula under the Holle umbrella. The Stage 1 Lebenswert formula is actually better than original Holle because it contains lactose instead of maltodextrin.
Unfortunately, Holle doesn’t meet FDA approval, so it’s difficult and expensive to obtain in the U.S. You can purchase it from Little World Organics (including Lebenswert).
Although European HiPP formula does contain palm oil, it is blended with coconut oil. The major upside to HiPP is the lack of plant-based sweeteners (it uses lactose instead). It also contains beneficial prebiotics, and my clients who use this formula say their baby’s poop looks like it did when they breastfed (weird but true). The only major concern with HiPP is the powder variety of its formula was found to have high aluminum levels (I can’t figure out why–possibly because it comes in aluminum pouches). So I now tell my clients to go for the ready-made version.
As with Holle, HiPP can be hard to purchase in the U.S. and expensive to have shipped from Europe. Purchase HiPP from Little World Organics.
If you would like to learn more about the differences between HiPP and Holle, read my blog post, HiPP Vs. Holle: Which European Infant Formula is Healthier?
What About Honest Formula?
I like that Honest’s formula’s first ingredient is actual organic milk, and that it contains lactose and DHA from fish oil rather than hexane-extracted oils from algae and fungus. Unfortunately, Honest’s formula also contains corn syrup (cleverly called “organic glucose syrup solids”), soy, and palm oil, which bumps it from Good Stuff to just Okay Stuff.
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:
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!
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