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Vegan Baby Formula: Good or Bad?

May 12, 2021 12 min read

Vegan Baby Formula: Good or Bad?

Vegan Baby Formula and Proteins?

There are a number of vegan baby formulas on the American baby formula market, but the safety, nutritional value and palatability of this type of baby formula is somewhat controversial. Most are soy-based and parent accounts sometimes report a peculiar odor and apparently bad taste of the formula leading some babies to refuse to drink it. 

Many pediatricians recommend soy formula or vegan baby formula only as a last resort for a baby with certain medical conditions or milk allergy, which can in certain cases be managed without resorting to soy formula. Importantly, some of these kinds of vegan formula, such as ones using pea protein, are marketed as toddler milk and are not suitable for a baby under one year.

As a possible alternative, there are also a number of excellent cow's milk-based organic baby formulas on the European market, along with goat's milk formula too. Although these aren't vegan, the European organic production standards are very high, natural, humane and sustainable, making them a popular choice even amongst vegan parents looking to give their baby the best food in their first year of life.

dairy free baby formula options

Vegans, Breastfeeding and Infant Formula

Most vegans consider breastfeeding to be generally acceptable and desirable. Only about 2 percent of all women fail to produce enough milk to sustain a baby. However, this number of new mothers unable to breastfeed can increase when impacted by factors such as maternal medications, maternal health, and lifestyle factors. 

Vegan mothers, like all mothers, may find themselves unable to breastfeed their baby for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes, formula is necessary. Breastfeeding is generally said to be the best for your baby since it's nutritional values are fitted to the baby's needs. Formulas, on the other hand, need the addition of essential vitamins and minerals like vitamin D3 or iron.


The Problem with Plant Proteins

Vegan baby formula is typically made from proteins found in rice, peas, buckwheat, the grain amaranth, potatoes and soy. However, very few plant proteins are complete. In fact, there are only a handful:

  • Soy
  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Spirulina, a type of blue-green algae
  • Hemp seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Quinoa

Proteins are made of building blocks called amino acids. Humans require 20 amino acids for health, maintenance, repair and growth. Of these 20 amino acids, nine are called essential. Essential means the amino acid must be obtained from food because the body cannot manufacture it. Essential and non-essential amino acids vary from species to species.

For example, the amino acid taurine is essential for cats but not for dogs or humans. Some plant foods, such as peanut butter and beans, are commonly believed to be high in protein, but this isn't accurate. The level of plant proteins in these foods, while high, isn't complete. In other words, the body cannot use them as such.

Vegans can get complete protein only by consuming the few sources of complete plant protein available or by combining certain plant foods, such as beans and rice. The essential proteins lacking in the beans are provided by the rice and vice versa. Foods of animal origin always contain complete protein which vegan baby formula may not.


plant based or vegan infant formula

About Soybeans Used in Soy Formula

Soybeans, along with products made from them, such as tofu, miso, tempeh, soymilk and infant formula, do provide complete protein, as does edamame, which is the immature green seed pod of the soybean. However, soybeans do have some problems:

  • Soy products are mostly highly processed
  • Soy contains potentially dangerous compounds
  • Virtually all non-organically grown soy is GMO

Soy milk, along with almond and rice milk, is a popular, tasty, versatile product sold as a healthy alternative to cow's milk. However, these plant milks undergo a great deal of processing. Soy, almond and rice milk do not occur in nature. Commercial products of this type are often sweetened and flavored, although sugar-free versions are typically available.

Moreover, plain plant milks provide highly unbalanced infant nutrition and must be considerably altered and fortified to be suitable for an infant formula, especially during the first year. Many plant milks and vegan baby formulas contain a number of additives, including carrageenan, a seaweed product used to alter food consistency for both pets and humans.

Carrageenan is linked to inflammatory bowel disease and is a suspected carcinogen. Although banned for use in European baby formula, carrageenan remains a common additive in American baby formula, where it functions as a stabilizer. It's supposed to keep the tiny particles in the baby formula suspended uniformly throughout. However, a simple good shake would do essentially the same thing without the added risk of a controversial ingredient like carrageenan, especially as part of an infant formula.

Isoflavones, Goitrogens, Phytates and Lectins

Soy and soy formula also contain isoflavones, which are compounds chemically similar to estrogen. Goitrogens are soybean compounds that interfere with the normal function of the thyroid gland. Cooking and heat do not disable the effect of the goitrogens. Soy contains high levels of phytates, too. These bind with minerals like zinc, calcium, iron and magnesium, causing the body to eliminate them without ever being absorbed.

Other soy compounds called lectins interfere with a hormone called leptin, which is linked to feelings of being full, preventing overeating. Interference with leptin may also be associated with a possible increase in insulin resistance, a dangerous condition potentially leading to the development of Type 2 diabetes. Cow's milk formula and goat's milk formula do not have these problems.

The isoflavones in soy imitate the actions of estrogen in the body. Science Daily reports that babies fed soy formula do have changes in their reproductive tissues. The significance of these changes from soy formula is unknown and may not be serious in the long-term, but this phenomenon did not occur in infants fed cow's milk based formula.

Not only is almost all non-organic soy GMO, but even organically grown soy is a destructive, opportunistic crop that pulls vital nutrients from the soil without giving anything back.


What is Lauric Acid?

Breast milk contains high levels of an important fatty acid called lauric acid. Also known as dodecanoic acid, this special fat is mainly found in human breast milk and coconuts. This is important because nursing mothers can actually increase their lauric acid breast milk content by consuming coconut products naturally rich in this valuable substance. Of the total fat content of breast milk, about 6 percent is lauric acid.

Cow's milk contains roughly one-third this amount, but it does have it. Vegan baby formula made from soy protein or other plant proteins does not naturally contain lauric acid, which has antiviral and antibacterial properties and is what gives breast milk its immune system boosting power. Goat's milk has a fair amount more of lauric acid than cow's milk does.

Furthermore, parents using any brand of American vegan baby formula should know that none are truly vegan because the vitamin D in them is sourced from lanolin, an animal product obtained from sheep's wool. Additionally, soy protein formula is not at all hypoallergenic. In fact, it's just as likely to cause an allergic reaction as cow's milk formula is.


babies have nutrition needs

The American Academy of Pediatrics

While the AAP does not denounce vegan and vegetarian diets for children, even for a baby, outright, it does clearly state that these restrictive diets, particularly the vegan one, can result in deficiencies in riboflavin, a B vitamin, cyanocobalamin, iron, protein, vitamin A and vitamin D3. Also cited are concerns about adequate caloric intake for the baby and a possible deficiency of certain fatty acids needed for baby brain and eye development.

Vegan children may have lower levels of leptin, a hormone involved in bone growth, maturation rates and healthy weight levels. For an infant fed a vegan formula, these concerns are even more critical because they get all their nutrition from just one source.

Older children able to consume a more varied diet have a much better chance of getting the nutrients they need from a vegan diet than a young baby does. For this reason, some vegan parents opt to feed their babies an organic cow's or goat's milk formula until about the age of one year and then switch the baby to a vegan diet.


The Principles of European Biodynamic Organic Farming

Cows raised on European biodynamic organic farms are free-range and grass-fed. The whole farm is treated as a ecosystem in itself. The humans, the animals, the plants and the soil are all interconnected with each other. Animals are humanely treated and live naturally. There are no artificial fertilizers, GMOs, or chemical pesticides used.

Pest control is handled by birds of prey and other natural predators who live and thrive on the premises. European baby formula brands marked as biodynamically organic will follow this same organic farming method and some, like Holle, also proudly bear the Demeter seal, the highest organic certification in Europe.

Look for the butterscotch-colored square-shaped seal on the European baby formula brand's packaging. It's a guarantee of strict organic farming methods that achieve a high quality formula. 

More About Biodynamic Organic Farming

Before a European farmer can obtain organic certification, they must spend two years preparing the land. Infusions containing minerals and other plant ingredients to enrich and activate the soil are applied during this time period. To obtain the coveted Demeter endorsement, the farmer must do this special soil preparation for an additional year.

Cow manure is collected from grass-fed cows in the autumn. It's then placed into a cow's horn and buried in the soil for six months. The resulting product is like a type of crumbly peat rich in plant and soil nutrients. Horn silica is another biodynamic product used to promote plant health. It's composed of quartz ground to a fine powder, which is then buried in a cow's horn from spring to autumn. The resulting mineral-rich product is stored in a glass jar in a sunny window. Tiny amounts are then mixed with water and fine-misted over plants in the morning.

Biodynamic farmers all maintain a compost heap composed of plant and crop clippings. The compost is treated with special plant-based preparations that help increase nitrogen content and encourage the growth of friendly microorganisms that in turn enrich and naturally fertilize the soil. These organic farmers never use any kind of chemical fertilizers because they believe these spoil the soil's ability to support and nourish plants and crops intended for human and farm animal consumption.

Biodynamic Animal Care

Biodynamic animal husbandry is regulated by the Demeter association. All animals are allowed their own space and access to the outdoors. Cows are free-range and organically grass-fed. There are no cages and no alteration of body parts, such as debeaking or docking of tails. Antibiotics are prohibited, and homeopathic remedies, instead of vaccines and pharmaceuticals, are encouraged.

Half of each animal's feed ration must come from the farm itself and the remainder must come from either Demeter certified organic feed or NOP certified organic feed. However, at least 80 percent of the non-farm-sourced feed must be Demeter certified. All animals must have a clean, quiet, dust-free area away from sun, heat and cold to rest.

Under biodynamic organic farming, great care is given to the land, the plants and the animals living on the land and eating the plants. This unique system results in a truly outstanding organic circle of life respecting all creatures in its care.


vitamin d and omega 3 dha are important when using infant formulas

European Biodynamic Organic Baby Formulas

European organic baby formula brands use more natural sources of sugar to provide babies with energy. You won't find artificial added sugars like corn syrup or brown rice syrup in EU organic infant formula. This is in direct contrast to baby formula made in the United States, certain brands of which can be more than half processed sugar. In fact, one popular American formula contains 43 percent corn syrup solids and over 10 percent sucrose.

This sucrose content is roughly the same as that found in many popular soft drinks! Dr. Robert Lustig, an American pediatric endocrinologist, refers to such formula as nothing more than a "baby milkshake" directly responsible for the steady flow of obese infants he sees in his practice.

European organic baby formula is sweetened mostly with lactose, the sugar found naturally in both breast, cow's, and goat's milk. A small amount of maltodextrin, a simple sugar derived from corn, rice, potatoes or wheat, is also occasionally used in some European formula brands, such as Holle.

HiPP Baby Formula uses only lactose and occasionally starch as an added source of energy. Organic European formula, by decree of the European Commission, cannot contain any of the following sweeteners:

  • Sucrose
  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Rice syrup
  • Corn syrup

Also banned from all European formula is carrageenan, a food consistency modifier with suspected links to cancer and that's been implicated in intestinal irritation and colon disease. Although carrageenan is controversial, it's still a common ingredient in American baby formula.

However, the European Commission, which is somewhat similar to the American FDA, prefers not to take chances with a questionable ingredient like carrageenan and handles the problem by just banning it outright from all formula. European organic infant formula is carrageenan-free and just sweet enough so a baby will drink it but not loaded with processed sugars that add no nutritional value and may encourage health problems for the baby. It just makes sense.

DHA, a fatty acid crucial for the brain and eye development of the baby, is required by law to be included in all European baby formula. Although American infant formula usually includes this vital nutrient also, it's not required by the American FDA.


infant formulas are different in the united states

A Look at Loulouka

In contrast to other European baby formula companies, such as Holle and HiPP, Loulouka is a newcomer to the field. Holle Baby Foods, an ethical, Demeter-certified, proud Swiss-German company, was founded in 1930. German company HiPP, established by Joseph Hipp during the turn of the 20th century, holds a Biodynamic Organic certificate.

HiPP was the first baby food company to introduce baby meals in a jar in the 1950s. All three of these fine European baby formula companies follow a philosophy that puts product quality and animal welfare above all else.

Loulouka is a Swiss company producing milk for organic baby formula on small, individual, organic farms that typically house less than 30 cows each. Farmers get to know their cows individually and treat them humanely. Cows graze on organic grass at will.

Farmers take the time to notice the health status of each animal. Some of these organic farmers think that the cows' horns have an important function in the overall health of the animals because the horns are involved in the circulatory system and reflect overall health, somewhat similarly to how a human's hair and nails may indicate certain health problems.

Other Loulouka Benefits

Infants need a high-fat diet generally to help promote eye, brain and other organ development. Loulouka formula contains no palm oil and substitutes it with coconut oil instead, which is thought to better increase absorption of essential fats and calcium by the infant's body. Coconut oil has the added advantage of being high in lauric acid. Loulouka also provides the following benefits:

  • Stage 1 can be used from birth onward
  • It contains whey proteins which are less likely to trigger a milk allergy
  • No added sweeteners, preservatives, colors or GMOs
  • Produced under strict European Union organic regulations
  • No soy, nuts or eggs
  • It contains lecithin sourced from sunflowers and vitamin D

Lecithin is a fatty substance containing large amounts of choline, a nutrient necessary for human health. It's involved in brain development and heart health. Most American baby formula uses lecithin sourced from soybeans. For parents who would like to avoid any kind of soy ingredients, lecithin obtained from other sources is an important factor.

Like Holle and HiPP organic baby formula, Loulouka is available in three stages: Stage 1 is for birth to six months. This formula stage provides lactose, the sugar naturally found in milk, as the primary energy source. Stage 2 begins at six months and extends to 10 months.

At this point, small amounts of maltodextrin, a simple sugar derived from corn, wheat, rice or potatoes, is included as an additional energy source for the growing child. Stage 3 can be used from 10 months up through the third year. All Loulouka stages are nutrient-adjusted to provide the best nutrition for each stage.


Loulouka baby formula

Holle and HiPP

Both of these European baby formula companies follow European organic farming practices to provide the best quality milk for a growing infant. For parents who may be interested in prebiotics, HiPP formula supplies them in all stages of their formula.

Find out more: HiPP vs Holle

Prebiotics function as food for the friendly intestinal bacteria necessary for a healthy microbiome, which is the term for the intestinal environment. The microbiome is a key factor in the body's immune system. Prebiotics are not the same as probiotics, which are found in certain foods like yogurt and kefir.


Vegan parents are entitled to their dietary practices and beliefs. However, they must also be knowledgeable about nutrition in order to safely follow a vegan diet. It's important to make safe and healthy choices when it comes to your infant's diet.

Vegan parents should always consult with their infant's pediatrician before choosing any kind of infant formula, vegan baby formula, or specialized diet for their baby. The world of European organic baby formula offers unique choices for healthy, environmentally sustainable, and animal welfare conscious baby formulas, that all caring parents can get on board with, vegan or not. 

vegan baby formula alternatives

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 to 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.


Note: the above source was informational only and is not included in this article.

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