Knowing what components make up a baby formula can help you make an informed choice about how to feed your baby and which products to choose. The EU has strict guidelines for determining the nutritional content of infant formula.
Depending on the type of formula, the amount and variety of ingredients may vary to accommodate a certain dietary restriction, although the overall nutritional baseline remains fairly similar.
These guidelines are based on recent scientific findings that aim to determine the best ways to provide infants with adequate nutrition that support their health and development.
Keep reading to learn more about the types of baby formulas available on the market as we breakdown their composition and go over the benefits and reasons for adding some of the most common ingredients.
Main Types of Baby Formula
Any variety of baby formula, from cow's milk formula to Hypoallergenic Formula will come in one of three forms. These forms include powdered baby formula, liquid concentrate and ready to feed baby formula.
Regardless of the state the formula comes in, be it liquid or powder, all three contain all of the ingredients that a growing baby needs. We will cover more about what those ingredients are below, but first let's break down the three types of baby formula.
Powdered formulas tend to be the most common choice for parents, likely due to the fact this they are the most cost effective and environmentally friendly.
Powdered formulas also come in multiple variations that are suitable for babies with dietary restrictions, such as hypoallergenic baby formula and anti-reflux baby formula. Powdered baby formula usually comes in a canister and must be portioned out with added water making for easy access formula feeding.
Liquid Concentrate Formula
Liquid concentrate formula has many of the same characteristics as powdered baby formula, such as the requirement that it be mixed with water, although it comes in liquid form. One of the main differences is that it comes sterile, where powdered baby formula is not sterile.
Ready to Feed Formula
Ready to feed formula has grown in popularity due to its convenience. This baby formula does not require you to add water before formula feeding, and typically comes in single-use bottles, making it great for travelling and life on the go.
Regardless of the type you choose, make sure to prepare your preferred baby formula according to the instructors labelled on the box or canister. Each portion size of powdered formula, liquid concentrate and ready to feed formula is meant to contain an adequate amount of recommended nutrients as determined by the EU.
These formulas are made to have a similar quantity of the macro and micronutrients that are found in breast milk, to provide formula-fed babies with comparable nutrition to breastfed babies. However, some of the health benefits of human milk cannot be replicated.
Now that we have covered the types of formula that can be found on the market, let's look at the different varieties of formula and their benefits.
Popular Varieties of Baby Formula
Cow's Milk Formula
The bulk of infant formula is made with cow's milk that has been adjusted to nutritionally resemble breast milk. There are two types of proteins found within cow's milk formula- whey and casein, which both contain essential amino acids.
The ratios of whey vs casein can impact the digestibility of a milk formula and differs between brands and products. There is more vitamin B12, selenium and folic acid in cow's milk than there is in goat's milk. Although cow's milk and goat's milk formula do not vary much in nutritional value.
Some brands such as Kendamil use whole milk in their formulas, whereas other brands use skimmed milk while adding oils to balance the fatty acid profile.
Goat's Milk Formula
Goat's milk formula, such as those carried by HiPP, Holle and Jovie have become increasingly popular in the European baby food market. Since 2012, the European Food Safety Authority had classified goat's milk infant formulas as a safe and healthy option for babies.
Goat's milk has naturally higher levels of protein, linoleic acid and is known to digest up to 2x faster than some other infant formula varieties due to it containing smaller fat molecules that can be broken down more quickly.
Goat milk's protein profile is closer to human breast milk because it is A1 casein-free as well as contains less lactose which may make it better suited for those with a mild lactose intolerance (but should still be avoided if your baby is allergic to cow's milk).
With more and more families choosing alternative diets due to environmental or health concerns, the demand for formulas made strictly from plant-derived ingredients has increased.
Vegan formulas are free from ingredients that contain dairy or are derived from dairy, such as cow's milk, goat's milk, casein and whey. Many vegan alternatives are soy based formulas as opposed to formulas made from animal proteins. Vegan formulas may also be an option for those with a milk protein allergy.
Types of Specialized Baby Formula
Specialized formulas should only be given in cases where other formulas are not suitable for your baby, due to allergies, sensitivities, issues with digestion or other concerns. Always consult your pediatrician when making any changes to your child's diet.
Hypoallergenic formulas contain hydrolyzed protein derived both from casein or whey. Hydrolyzation removes complex milk proteins, leaving behind only a smaller and more digestible hydrolyzed protein that is low in allergens. This infant formula is meant to minimize the risk of food allergies in babies with sensitivities to milk proteins.
Comfort formulas also contain hydrolyzed protein while also having a reduced lactose content which is meant to relieve a variety of digestive issues.
Anti-reflux formulas use a natural thickening agent such as carob fruit gum which helps babies retain food in their stomach to reduce regurgitation and vomiting.
Nutritional Composition of Formula
Each and every formula mentioned above is made of the same macro and micronutrient components. These components are proteins, fats, carbohydrates, which are macronutrients and vitamins and minerals, which are micronutrients. All of these components provide a baby's body with the fuel it needs to grow and develop.
As mentioned above, the two main proteins in milk formulas are whey and casein. In the early stages of breastfeeding, the whey content in breast milk is higher due to newborns needing easily-digestible and quick absorbing food to help them grow and provide them with energy.
The ratio eventually evens out to about 60% whey and 40% casein, which is why many cow's milk formulas such as HiPP and Kendamil have a similar ratio.
Breast milk and infant formulas contain saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids which provides babies with energy, helps with brain development and protects against infections.
There are many different kinds of common fatty acids such that can be found in some of the most popular European formulas including palmitic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid, stearic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. These fatty acids help with the body better absorb vitamins that are fat-soluble.
The European Commission requires that at least 30% of carbohydrates in infant formula come from lactose, as this is the main carbohydrate in human milk. Carbs are a great source of energy for babies and help regulate the use of fats and proteins to support other essential functions within the body.
Some brands also add additional sources or sub lactose with ingredients such as maltodextrin, glucose, glucose syrup, pre-cooked starch, and gelatinized starch, which are all acceptable carb sources per the guidelines given by the European Commission. In many American formulas you will find corn syrup as a main carb source, which is not permitted in European infant formula.
Vitamins and Minerals
Many vitamins and minerals that are found in breast milk are also added to many formulas such as Vitamin A, Vitamin D3, Vitamin E, Vitamin K1, Vitamin C, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, zinc, manganese, iodine, copper, selenium and more. Here are the benefits of some of these vitamins:
Vitamin A: Aids in skin, hair, eye health and benefits the immune system
Vitamin B1: Helps turn food into energy and prevent complications in various bodily systems and organs.
Vitamin B6: Supports brain development and the immune system.
Vitamin B12: Supports nerve health and keeps blood cells healthy and create DNA.
Vitamin C: Help protect against infections and helps the body healing. Builds healthy bones and muscles.
Main Ingredients in Baby Formula
We have already covered a lot of the valuable nutrients you will find in European formulas, but let's take a closer look at some of the main ingredients and go over why they are added to infant formula.
Iron is an essential part of dispersing oxygen in red blood cells to all parts of the body, and in early childhood is known for supporting neurological development. It is recommended by ESPGHAN (The European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition) that healthy formula fed infants receive 4 to 8 mg of iron from their formula, and after this age other iron rich foods can slowly be introduced to compliment their diet. Babies who were born premature or with low birth weights may require additional Iron in their diets.
As of 2020 the European commission has made the polyunsaturated fatty acid DHA (Omega-3) a mandatory ingredient in all infant formulas. This is not required in American formulas. DHA has many potential benefits from nervous system growth to retinal development. Studies suggest that getting an adequate amount of DHA in early stages of life can have positive, long lasting effects on health and long-term development.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Prebiotics benefit gut health and work with probiotics to promote the development of healthy microflora in the body to enhance the protective properties of the immune system. Probiotics are helpful little microorganisms that stimulate the growth and reproduction of healthy intestinal microflora which promote digestion and immunity.
There has been debate over how beneficial soy is to a babies health. Soy based formula will typically contain isoflavones which has similar properties to the hormone estrogen, although there are no conclusive findings that this would harm an infant in anyway.
Soy is also used in milk based formulas for a number of reasons. To begin, it is a source of fibre, protein and omega-3 fats, as well as soy lecithin is used to help food products emulsify.
European formulas cover all of the nutritional basis and is backed by up to date scientific findings that support the healthy development of babies. Depending on the formula, some brands like Holle and Lebenswer strive to make a formula that is as natural as possible, and the ingredients will reflect that.
Whereas, other brands such as HiPP aim to make their Organic formulas more closely resemble real breast milk and the ingredients and their ratios will reflect that. No matter what kind of formula you choose to nourish your baby with, in it, you will find all the ingredients that they need in the early stages of life.
Please be aware that this information is based on general trends in babies, and it is not medical advice. Your doctor should be your first source of information and advice when considering any changes to your child’s formula and when choosing your child’s formula. Always consult your pediatrician before making any decisions about your child’s diet or if you notice any changes in your child.
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.
Agustina Fernandez is a medical doctor, who graduated from Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, in Argentina. She has experience working in an emergency room of a public hospital, where she helped many patients with urgent diseases. However, her true passion are children and she is planning on doing her specialization degree in Pediatrics soon. In the past year, she has become interested in researching about infant nutrition, including breastfeeding, infant formula and food in the first years of little ones' lives.
Dr. Hsu received his medical degree from Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and holds a Master’s of Science degree from both Harvard University and Tufts University.
Dr. Hsu did research in MRI neuroimaging research of fetal brains at Boston Children’s Hospital, an affiliated hospital of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Hsu is currently a full-time medical writer and consultant.
Outside of the medical profession, Dr. Hsu loves to write, learn new languages, and travel