The very best baby formulas are the ones with ingredients that most closely resemble human breast milk, because breastmilk is the food that nature designed perfectly to nourish a developing infant. Consequently, a baby formula that is close to the composition of breastmilk is what most parents strive to buy. But let's face it, many of us don't even really know what that means. What does a baby formula need to contain to be considered "similar to breastmilk" and which ingredients should be avoided?
This article will help parents understand some harmful common baby formula additives and why they should be avoided. Before we get to the ingredients to watch out for, let's first start with some very important baby formula ingredients that your baby needs for healthy development.
Babies need healthy fats and lots of them. This requirement amounts to about 6 tablespoons daily, which is an astounding figure compared to the body size of a baby. Babies should be getting a sufficient amount of fat in their diet, one way to help achieve this is with a formula made with whole cow's or goat's milk which are known to have a higher fat content than skim milk. However, some parents become confused by seeing high quality infant formula labels listing skim milk as a first ingredient.
Some manufacturers do this to increase the amount of the healthy carbohydrate lactose, which is the sugar naturally found in cow, goat, and breast milk. Lactose provides energy and calories for the growing baby and its naturally sweet taste encourages the baby to feed. Skim milk proportionally contains more lactose than whole milk does. The manufacturer then replaces the missing whole milk fat with other fats like vegetable oils.
ARA and DHA
Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA and arachidonic acid or ARA are both long-chain PUFAs or polyunsaturated fatty acids. PUFAs are typically found in vegetable, nut, and seed oils that are liquid at room temperature. This is in contrast to saturated fats, like those found in butter and red meats, which are solid at room temperature.
Rich in foods like fish and eggs, neither DHA nor ARA are essential fatty acids. This means that both of them can be manufactured by the body from the two essential fatty acids, a-linoleic, and linoleic acid, both of which must be obtained from food because the body cannot manufacture them. All fatty acids are like building blocks that combine in different ways to form different fat molecules.
Both DHA and ARA are closely linked to healthy brain and eye development in the growing baby, and recent evidence suggests that a baby typically doesn't convert much of these two critical fat compounds from dietary linoleic acid. Partly for this reason, many formulas now include these two fats, and they have become almost like buzzwords for the selection of the best baby formula.
Baby Formula Additives: The Five Most Unwanted Ingredients
Carrageenan is derived from a type of red seaweed. It's used in both the human and pet food industry to thicken, stabilize and alter the consistency of foods. In baby formula, especially the liquid ready-to-feed or concentrated forms that are sold in cans, carrageenan is used to keep all ingredients evenly dispersed throughout the product.
Parents may find it convenient to not have to shake a can or partially used bottle before feeding, but carrageenan has risks. It's a known irritant to the intestines and may be linked to some forms of irritable bowel syndrome and other health issues. It's also a suspected carcinogen. Because it may be harvested from wild seaweed untreated with chemicals, carrageenan may legally be in product ingredients labeled as organic. However, it has no nutritional value and has been banned outright in all European baby formulas.
Vegan parents giving plant-based milk like soy and almond to older children should also be advised that carrageenan is one of the most common ingredients in these products, too.
Preservatives and Artificially Sourced Nutrients
Many baby formulas contain the following preservatives and nutrients which are often labeled as natural. Although the ingredients do indeed occur in nature, the manufacturer's claims are disingenuous because the ingredients are often not sourced naturally and rather are chemically created in a lab. These ingredients are synthetic and for the most part, extracted using hexane and other dangerous solvents. We feel that the following synthetic preservatives and chemicals have no place in baby food or baby formula:
Preservatives to be avoided
Yes, these are healthy substances when found naturally in foods but not when they're synthetically sourced chemicals included in food for a baby.
Many brands of American baby formula contain high amounts of processed sugars as ingredients, such as sucrose, fructose, glucose, rice syrup, and corn syrup. In fact, some brands approach levels of around 50 percent sugar. This early exposure to so much sugar is neither necessary nor healthy for a baby. Baby formula can be sweetened with lactose, the sugar naturally found in milk. This is what most European baby formula contains as a sweetener rather than sucrose or corn syrup.
Processed sugars provide no nutritional value, contribute to the future risk of obesity and possibly heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and may create a lifelong preference for sweets.
Insulin spikes due to dietary sugar
Too much dietary sugar can cause insulin spikes. When sugar is consumed, the pancreas releases insulin to metabolize it and escort it into cells, where it's needed for energy. However, processed sugar may cause too much insulin to be released, causing the blood sugar to drop too low. The insulin first spikes, causing the blood sugar to drop, which in turn causes a further craving for sugar to raise it again.
It's a vicious circle, and there is little doubt that processed sugars aren't healthy for a baby or for anyone. With very few exceptions, most European formulas for a baby cannot and do not contain glucose, fructose, corn syrup, rice syrup, or sucrose.
Lecithin is an emulsifier that is typically derived from soybeans. It's used as a stabilizer and blending agent. In baby formula, its main function would be to keep all the micro-droplets of the formula's ingredients evenly distributed throughout the product.
The problem with lecithin in baby formula products is mostly due to its soy origin. Almost all soy grown under non-organic conditions, which is most of it, is GMO in origin. Soy is also a known allergen for a baby. Soy also contains substances called phytoestrogens that are chemically similar to the female hormone estrogen. Exposure to these phytoestrogens present in soy baby formula products have been linked to changes in babies' reproductive tissues. The long-term effects of these soy-induced changes in the baby remain unknown.
Unfortunately, some baby formula manufacturers still use soy lecithin. In Europe, most baby formulas contain sunflower lecithin instead.
Mono and Di-Glycerides
Used as an emulsifier and food texture enhancer, mono and di-glycerides are both products of vegetable oil processing. Monoglycerides are also naturally present in some foods in small amounts. Both mono and di-glycerides are types of fatty acids that can contain trans fats, depending on how they are derived and produced. Both can be a hidden source of dangerous trans fats because their presence may not necessarily be disclosed on the labels of food products, including possibly baby formula.
The chemical processing of vegetable oils yielding products like mono and di-glycerides may result in the production of trans fats. Although trans fats were banned in the United States as of June, 2018, there is a loophole that allows manufacturers to include as much as half a gram of trans fats per serving, while still legally stating a zero trans fat content on the label. Depending on how much of the particular affected food products someone consumes, this could add up considerably.
There is no known safe consumption level for artificial trans fats. They should be avoided entirely. By the same reasoning, mono and di-glycerides in food for a baby are possibly hazardous chemicals and should also be avoided.
How to find a good formula?
One of the first red flags to look out for when picking a baby formula should be a long list of complicated ingredients. The label of a quality formula for a baby should be easy to read and understand and not be full of strange chemical names and peculiar-sounding ingredients.
Organic European baby formulas will have the added advantage of no pesticide residues because their organic farming methods are stringent and regulated by European Union law. When choosing any formula for a baby, it's important to start with the child's pediatrician. Discuss any concerns about baby food additives and other possibly harmful ingredients. The pediatrician will be knowledgeable about baby nutrition. Some parents opt to choose an EU organic baby formula without additives and then asking the baby's doctor to approve it. This will provide the nutrition the baby needs without the harmful additives that may compromise their health.
Please be aware that this information is based on general trends evidenced in babies, it is in no way medical advice. Your doctor should be your first source of information and advice when considering any changes with your child’s formula, and when choosing your child’s formula. Always consult your pediatrician prior to making any decisions about your child’s diet or if you notice any changes in your child.
Disclaimer: Breastfeeding is the best nutrition for your baby, because breast milk provides your child with all the essential nutrients they need for growth and development. Please consult your pediatrician if your child requires supplemental feeding.