**This post has been linked to Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade!**
I’m writing this article because I believe that what you choose to feed your baby is of utmost importance. Whether that ultimately means you breastfeed or use formula, you need to know exactly what you’re getting into. We’ve already discussed the benefits of breastfeeding, so now we’re going to talk about formula: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And there are all three.
By “artificial baby milk,” I mean formula. Because that’s what it is. “Authentic baby milk” would be breastmilk, the milk that you produce that was designed specifically for your baby. Anything else is artificial, a substitute, no matter how good it is. That’s something to keep in mind here: it’s not “all the same.”
There is a common misconception that today, formula is really pretty darn close to breastmilk and it honestly doesn’t matter which you feed your baby. It’s also common to think that all formulas are the same and interchangeable. Neither is true! We’re going to talk about what’s really in formula, how it’s made, and how it really compares to breastmilk. The goal of any artificial baby milk should be to mimic breastmilk as closely as possible. You may be surprised to learn ways in which some artificial baby milks don’t come very close! And of course, there are others that are better options too.
Ingredients in formula
PARTIALLY HYDROLYZED REDUCED MINERALS WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE (FROM COW’S MILK), LACTOSE, CORN MALTODEXTRIN, PALM OLEIN, SOYBEAN OIL, COCONUT OIL, MINERALS (POTASSIUM CITRATE, POTASSIUM PHOSPHATE, CALCIUM CHLORIDE, TRICALCIUM PHOSPHATE, SODIUM CITRATE, MAGNESIUM CHLORIDE, FERROUS SULPHATE, ZINC SULPHATE, SODIUM CHLORIDE, COPPER SULPHATE, POTASSIUM IODIDE, MANGANESE SULPHATE), HIGH OLEIC SAFFLOWER OIL OR HIGH OLEIC SUNFLOWER OIL, VITAMINS (SODIUM ASCORBATE, CHOLINE BITARTRATE, INOSITOL, ALPHA-TOCOPHERYL ACETATE, NIACINAMIDE, CALCIUM PANTOTHENATE, THIAMINE MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, VITAMIN A ACETATE, PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE, FOLIC ACID, PHYLLOQUINONE, BIOTIN, VITAMIN D3, VITAMIN B12), TRYPSIN, TAURINE, NUCLEOTIDES, (CYTIDINE 5′-MONOPHOSPHATE, DISODIUM URIDINE 5′-MONOPHOSPHATE, ADENOSINE 5′-MONOPHOSPHATE, DISODIUM GUANOSINE 5′-MONOPHOSPHATE), L-CARNITINE.
Similac: I can’t find the ingredients listed anywhere on their website. They heavily promote the addition of DHA and ARA but don’t give a full ingredient list or cite sources of their DHA, etc. I’m not sure why not….
Enfamil (I found this only because I dug up an old sample can I had around, and took it from that label. They also don’t list ingredients on their website):
Reduced Minerals Whey, Nonfat Milk, Vegetable Oil (Palm Olein, Soy, Coconut and High Oleic Sunflower Oils), Lactose, And Less Than 1%: Mortierella Alpina Oil (A source of Arachidonic acid-ARA), Crypthecodinium Cohni Oil (A source of Docosahexaenoic Acid-DHA), Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin D3, Vitamin E Acetate, Vitamin K1, Thiamin Hydrochloride, Vitamin B6 Hydrochloride, Vitamin B12, Niacinamide, Folic Acid, Calcium Pantothenate, Biotin, Sodium Ascorbate, Inositol, Calcium Chloride, Calcium Phosphate, Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Sulfate, Manganese Sulfate, Cupric Sulfate, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Citrate, Potassium Citrate, Potassium Hydroxide, Sodium Selenite, Taurine, Nucleotides (Adenosine 5′-Monophosphate, Cytidine 5′-Monophosphate, Disodium Guanosine 5′-Monophosphate, Disodium Uridine 5′-Monophosphate)
When you’re reading those ingredients, think about how many words you recognize. Not that many, right? Hmm. Many of the words ARE various forms of synthetic vitamins, so that’s really good news/bad news. Good that it’s a vitamin, bad that it’s synthetic. Synthetic vitamins are not well absorbed, and can cause stomachaches or other problems in some babies. Iron, especially, can cause problems in babies, so be aware of that if your baby is struggling with formula.
Also, unrefined coconut oil is one of the best sources of medium-chain fatty acids like lauric acid (found heavily in breastmilk). All oils in formula are refined oils, and many times they say “x, y, and/or z” when listing oils. This is because they use whatever oil is cheapest to provide fats.
There is some concern that not all of the ingredients are reported on the label. Recently, MSG and other chemicals have been found in baby formulas.
It is also important to note that each of the major manufacturers uses different combinations of proteins and oils, and not all combinations may be suitable for all babies. Some manufacturers use only whey protein; others use different ratios of casein and whey. They are not all the same and should not be used interchangeably.
Discussion of fats
Commercial formula typically does not contain any cholesterol, while breastmilk does. To more closely match breastmilk, it SHOULD contain cholesterol. It may be wise to add a small amount of unrefined coconut oil (which actually still doesn’t contain cholesterol, but does contain lauric acid, also important) or another oil to add fat to your baby’s formula. There are ideas on Weston Price’s website about additions to make to commercial formula to help it more closely match breastmilk.
Realistically, formula is a highly processed food. Proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are extracted from their various sources (cow’s milk, unsaturated oils, synthetic vitamins, etc.) and combined. In some cases, these are then dried and powdered. Be aware that this is the case. Ready-to-feed formula is the least processed of all the formula out there and doctors do tend to recommend it for any babies who are premature, have serious allergies, or other difficulties (it’s also least likely to be contaminated since it is sterilized during processing and doesn’t require additions or mixing).
There are those who believe that highly processed food is not a bad thing, because one can achieve the desired balance of fat, carbohydrates, and proteins from various sources. And there are those who much prefer a whole foods approach and don’t care for processed foods (like me). So be aware that this is the case.
Soy formulas are also highly processed, and can contain large amounts of phyto estrogens, which is increasingly a concern among some. Other compounds are also considered a problem by some.
Also, there are special formulas for babies with serious allergies and other issues, like Similac Alimentum and Neocate, and Enfamil Nutramigen and Elecare. These formulas basically contain corn syrup and individual amino acids, since proteins in food are what typically cause allergic reactions. These formulas may be recommended for babies who are not gaining weight, have severe allergies, or other medical problems. These, too, are highly processed, but if breastfeeding is not possible (in many of these cases, a very severe elimination diet would be required, and sometimes reactions can’t be completely figured out), these formulas may be recommended.
Lack of immunities, antibodies, etc.
Formula does not contain any immunities, antibodies, or anything living. It also is exactly the same every time, while a mother’s milk changes to meet her baby’s needs, and flavors change with what she eats. See the article on benefits of breastfeeding for more.
Healthier alternatives to tradtional formula
Commercial formula is not the only option if you are unable to breastfeed or choose not to. Homemade formula is also an option. The advantage to homemade formula is that it is composed of whole foods rather than processed foods, which some babies can tolerate better. It also can be adjusted to meet your baby’s needs. For example, if you note that your baby is allergic to one ingredient, you can leave it out or substitute something similar that your baby is not allergic to. Doctors do discourage making homemade formula but as a parent, it is up to you to provide the best nutrition, and homemade formula can be that for many babies. Here is a recipe: Homemade baby formula.
If you choose to make homemade formula, please follow all safety precautions about handling and storing the milk and prepared formula in order to prevent contamination.
Whatever method you choose to feed your baby, pay careful attention to the baby to make sure that everything is going well. Some signs that your feeding method of choice may not be right:
*Excessive spitting up and/or projectile vomitting
*Red ring around the anus
*Chronic diaper rash
*Failure to thrive/low weight gain
*Persistent cradle cap
If you note any of these problems, see your baby’s doctor. Consider keeping a food journal if you are breastfeeding to try to eliminate any foods that may cause problems for your baby. Common culprits are dairy, soy, beans, onions, garlic, chocolate, coffee, cabbage, broccoli, and other gas-producing or caffeine-containing foods. However, anything can bother your baby even if it is not on the “common” list, so keep trying until you figure it out. Nuts, tomatoes, peppers, etc. can also be problems. Don’t forget hidden sources of these foods, as well, such as breads made with milk or butter, etc.
By making an informed choice about your baby’s diet and paying careful attention to make sure that he is thriving, you are setting your baby up for a lifetime of excellent nutrition and health.
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