When it comes to feeding babies, everyone’s so hopped up over the Breast is Best VS Fed is Best campaigns that no one’s discussing most of the real issues that exist. We don’t have truly optimal ways to feed babies right now…and by fighting constantly, we’re not helping anyone.
Obviously, diving in and taking a closer look at infant formula is a touchy area for many. Some moms can’t or don’t want to breastfeed; so what then? There has to be another choice. But what if that choice is possibly harming some babies…and we don’t even realize it? Babies who can’t have breastmilk need choices that are safe and healthy for them. That’s why, uncomfortable as it may be, we have to talk about it.
But first…a little background on this issue — one I have yet to see anyone else raise.
What is MTHFR and Why Do I Care?
MTHFR is a gene mutation, and it has only started to get attention in the last few years. There is very little research into it right now.
What we do know is that it’s more common than most people realize, and that it affects the body’s methylation cycle. That’s super complicated (better explanation of it HERE), but the short version is, while most people can make a conversion from folic acid and other B vitamins from the synthetic form to the active form, people with this mutation can’t.
That means that if someone is getting only synthetic vitamins — or mostly — that they can easily become deficient because their bodies can’t use that. What’s more, for people with some types of the mutation, these synthetic vitamins can actually become toxic, and cause all kinds of problems.
Other vitamins are impacted, depending on the exact type of mutation that you (or baby) have. B2 is commonly an issue. B-12 may also be.
In general, people with this mutation have to be very, very careful about avoiding synthetic forms of B vitamins, particularly (but not only) folic acid.
MTHFR mutations have been associated with:
- Increased risk of heart disease
- Impaired detox pathways
- Spina bifida and other neural tube defects
- …and a lot more
This is not something to play around with. It’s also not something you can ever “cure,” as it is a genetic mutation. But you can learn to manage it…by avoiding key foods and taking certain supplements. (There are multiple versions of this mutation — there are two different genes, C677T and A1298C, and your exact risk factors will depend on if you have one copy of one, two copies of one, or one copy of each. The more mutated copies you have…the worse it is.)
External signs that you may have this mutation include:
- Tongue/lip tie
- Blue vein across bridge of nose
- Sacral dimple (lower part of spine, small ‘hole’)
- Cleft palate
There’s a lot we don’t know about this…but we can safely assume that the more we ignore it, the worse it will be! There are families who have done genetic testing to confirm their mutations, and who have taken steps to eliminate sources of both “toxins” (pesticides, food dyes, etc.) and synthetic vitamins and who have seen sharp health and behavior improvements.
Unfortunately, since the vast majority of people don’t realize that they have this mutation…or understand the implications of it, most people do not realize that certain health issues they are experiencing may be connected — and that their health could possibly improve if they were able to take steps to change their diet or supplements. (It isn’t rare.)
But what does this have to do with babies?
Is Commercial Infant Formula Harming Babies with MTHFR?
Here’s the problem. Up to 75% of people have some form of this mutation. (Source) Approximately 21% of babies are never breastfed, country-wide. Over half are on formula, at least part-time, by 6 months of age. 73% are on formula by one year of age. (Source)
A majority of infants are receiving commercial infant formula at some point during their first year of life — most on a regular basis. We can assume that up to 75% of those babies have the MTHFR mutation in some form and don’t know it. And their primary food contains synthetic vitamins!
Check out the ingredients in Enfamil’s formula (emphasis mine):
NONFAT MILK, LACTOSE, VEGETABLE OIL (PALM OLEIN, COCONUT, SOY, AND HIGH OLEIC SUNFLOWER OILS), WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, AND LESS THAN 2%: GALACTOOLIGOSACCHARIDES‡, POLYDEXTROSE‡, MORTIERELLA ALPINA OIL§, CRYPTHECODINIUM COHNII OIL||, CALCIUM CARBONATE, POTASSIUM CITRATE, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, FERROUS SULFATE, CALCIUM PHOSPHATE, SODIUM CHLORIDE, MAGNESIUM OXIDE, ZINC SULFATE, CUPRIC SULFATE, MANGANESE SULFATE, POTASSIUM IODIDE, SODIUM SELENITE, SOY LECITHIN, INOSITOL, CHOLINE CHLORIDE, ASCORBIC ACID, NIACINAMIDE, CALCIUM PANTOTHENATE, VITAMIN A PALMITATE, RIBOFLAVIN, THIAMIN HYDROCHLORIDE, VITAMIN D3, VITAMIN B6HYDROCHLORIDE, FOLIC ACID, VITAMIN K1, BIOTIN, VITAMIN B12, VITAMIN E ACETATE, NUCLEOTIDES (CYTIDINE 5’-MONOPHOSPHATE, DISODIUM URIDINE 5’-MONOPHOSPHATE, ADENOSINE 5’-MONOPHOSPHATE, DISODIUM GUANOSINE 5’-MONOPHOSPHATE), TAURINE, L-CARNITINE.
Note that this formula contains synthetic folic acid (not natural folate). The label doesn’t specify, but it’s likely that the B-12 is in the form of cyanocobalamin (most common in fortified food and supplements), which is not the safest or most easily absorbed form.
These synthetic vitamins are exactly what families with the MTHFR mutation are trying to avoid…and yet, they’re in something that’s making up the bulk of an infant’s food for months!
(By the way, folic acid also passes through breast milk, so this isn’t an issue with only formula. Moms who are taking a supplement that contains folic acid, or eating foods that are fortified with it are also passing it to their babies.)
What Is The Risk in This?
For some babies (depending on if they have the mutation and which type they have), this long-term supplementation with synthetic vitamins could increase their risk of cancer later in life.
More immediately, it could lead to deficiencies in folate (since their bodies can’t process it or turn it to the active form). Folate is necessary for:
- Proper growth
- Mental clarity
- DNA replication
- Making red blood cells
- …and more
In other words, it’s incredibly important that kids get enough, and could lead to a whole host of problems if they don’t!
What Do We Do About This?
Right now, there are no easy answers.
Breastfeeding is obviously optimal…if it’s possible (which isn’t always the case). Breastfeeding moms should take care to avoid supplements that have synthetic folic acid in them, and try to avoid processed white flour or other foods with that are fortified with folic acid and other synthetic vitamins. This includes any type of bread or crackers made from white flour, most breakfast cereals, and more. Processed foods are largely out.
What is breastfeeding isn’t possible?
There really is no good option.
These are the ingredients from Holle organic baby formula:
Skimmed milk** (Germany), whey powder* partly demineralised, vegetable oils* (palm oil*, rapeseed oil*, sunflower oil*), maltodextrin*, calcium carbonate, potassium chloride, sodium chloride, vitamin C, vitamin E, ferrous lactate, zinc sulphate, niacin, Calcium-D-pantothenate, copper sulphate, vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B6, manganese sulphate, potassium iodate, folic acid, vitamin K, sodium selenate, vitamin D
These are the ingredients from Baby’s Only Organic formula:
Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Nonfat Milk, Organic High Oleic Sunflower and/or Organic High Oleic Safflower Oil, Organic Soybean Oil, Organic Coconut Oil, Calcium Phosphate, Calcium Ascorbate (Vit. C), Organic Soy Lecithin, Calcium Citrate, Choline Bitartrate, Organic Vanilla, Taurine, Ferrous Sulfate, Inositol, d-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate (Vit. E), Zinc Sulfate, Niacinamide, Vitamin A Palmitate, Calcium Pantothenate, Thiamin Hydrochloride (Vit. B1), Copper Sulfate, Riboflavin (Vit.B2), Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vit. B6), Folic Acid, Phylloquinone (Vit. K1), Potassium Iodide, Sodium Selenate, Biotin, Vitamin D3, Cyanocobalamin (Vit. B12).
Both contain synthetic vitamins, namely folic acid. (And Baby’s Only shows that they do use cyanocobalamin as their B12.)
It’s almost impossible to find any product on the market that is “supplemental” in nature and includes vitamins in a healthy, safe form. Many parents will opt for using the best formula that they can afford. (This appears to be Holle if you’re going organic, or Enfamil if you’re not.)
Another option — which is controversial, but which I would choose, if I were in the situation — is to create a homemade formula that’s based on whole, raw cow or goat milk. Pasteurized, cultured milk can also be used, for people who don’t have access to raw or who don’t feel comfortable using it.
Yes, homemade formula is controversial, because a lot of parents are worried about having the “exact right balance of nutrients” in their formulas. And sure, you do want to nourish your baby the best you can! But let’s put this into perspective — most baby formulas are a blend of some kind of carbohydrate in the form of “syrup” (corn syrup, brown rice syrup) mixed with cow’s milk, a few oils, and synthetic vitamins. There’s nothing all that special about that.
Plus, “formula” recipes for a long, long time were very crude, basically consisting of evaporated milk and corn syrup — they didn’t even add extra vitamins or oils or anything! I would not recommend doing this, but these babies managed to survive. The point isn’t “it doesn’t matter what we feed our babies,” the point is, we don’t need to be so overly worried about getting the exact nutrient ratio that we trust commercial products filled with junky ingredients over a homemade option.
We feed our kids whole foods in every other circumstance as much as possible. Why would we abdicate infant nutrition to “experts?” (Plus, just read those ingredients….) Whole, natural foods remain the way to go.
It would also help to write to formula companies to demand that they create healthier products, with naturally occurring forms of vitamins instead of synthetic. This would be more expensive for them and for consumers; but it would be a much better option for families who would be better off avoiding these synthetic nutrients.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of how we’re feeding our babies, we need to be concerned that they’re getting healthy, safe food. That includes whole, unprocessed options without synthetic vitamins, because this could have a much greater effect on babies and the population’s health as a whole than we realize it is.