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Baby Formula: What to Look For, What to Avoid and When to Use It


Breastfeeding provides a multitude of health benefits for both babies and their mothers, but not everybody is able (or wants) to breastfeed. Since our earliest caveperson days to now, breastfeeding has been a challenge to some mothers, for one reason or another. This is where a good baby formula can step in to help – unfortunately, good infant formula is extremely hard to come by. It's a question I am asked so frequently that I thought it was time to take another dive into baby formula, what to look for and what to avoid.

Breastfeeding is easier for some, more than others. For some moms, even when they do everything they can with diet and lifestyle – it just doesn’t work, or not well enough to get the baby to latch, to manage the chapped nipples, and ultimately, meet their babies’ nutrition requirements.

We have always needed, and will always continue to need, an alternative. That's a no-brainer. The last thing on earth I would ever want to do is shame anybody for not being able to (or choosing not to) breastfeed. Mom guilt is total nonsense and has no place in this conversation. I also don't want anybody falling prey to the horrendous healthwashing orchestrated by companies like Nestle and Gerber when it comes to baby formula. Which is why this post exists. These companies want us to think that a chemical cocktail formula is better than what nature can provide, whether in the form of breastmilk or in the form of good quality baby formula.

Nestle, in particular, has been the target of a number of lawsuits in response to their formula's health claims, and its marketing tactics have been linked to the deaths of millions of children in impoverished countries.

We've got a bit of a problem here, and it has nothing to do with the parents who are just trying to do their very best for their babies. It has to do with the enormous pile of crapola that goes into every ounce of conventional formula.

I was fortunate to be able to breastfeed our baby Finley for a long time. Finley was exclusively breastfed until he was 5-months-old at which time we began introducing food. At no time was it easy. I dealt with blocked ducts, bleeding nipples, latch problems, frequent feedings, all night snacking, and pumping for hours and hours. I was grateful to be able to breastfeed my son, but it also wasn't one of the things I loved to do.

While I am by no means the ultimate expert on baby formula, my intention here is to offer you some things to consider when choosing a baby formula, and how you can pick the one that is best for you and your child.

Ingredients to Avoid in Baby Formula

First off, I’d like to acknowledge that some baby formula companies have upped their game, sourcing non-GMO ingredients and they've improved their packaging to exclude BPA, a known endocrine disruptor. However, there are still some things to look out for when it comes to baby formula:

  • Partially Hydrolyzed Whey Protein: Whey protein comes from cow's milk, which is one of the most common food allergies in children. Allergic reactions can include diarrhea, hives and swelling of the lips.
  • Corn Maltodextrin: Corn maltodextrin is a cheap food additive often found in snack foods like chips and crackers. It may be sourced from GMO corn. And it's also a sweetener.
  • Soybean Oil: Soybean oil is cheap, which means it's found in virtually all processed foods. Like corn, unless otherwise noted, it most likely comes from GMO sources. It's a highly unstable oil, so food manufacturers partially hydrogenate it to raise the melting point and stabilize it so it won't turn rancid. The result? An altered chemical structure and, in many cases, trans fats.
  • Palm Oil: Research has shown that babies can't properly digest palm oil - in fact, it reacts with calcium, causing the formation of "soaps" in the baby's intestines, leading to hard stools and lowered bone mass. Palm oil is also an extremely unsustainable oil that is destroying animal habitats and the environment.
  • High Oleic Safflower Oil or High Oleic Sunflower Oil: Safflower/sunflower oils are extremely common in packaged foods because they are very cheap. They are also highly processed with contaminants and are very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. If these oils are harmful for adults, why would we feed them to babies just after birth?
  • Mortierella Alpine Oil and Crypthecodinium Cohnii Oil: These are arachidonic acid (ARA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), respectively, both of which are important for a baby’s growth and development. However, the forms of these in many brands of baby formula are synthetic and not the same as what you’d find in human breast milk. The benefits of these synthetics are not as clear as some formula companies would like you to believe, and in some cases they may even cause harm to babies like diarrhea, vomiting and gastrointestinal pain.
  • Nanoparticles: A recent report found several brands of baby formula contained nanoparticles/nanomaterials, which are super small, engineered particles. The health impacts of nanoparticles have yet to be fully understood, and the studies at this point are mainly on animals, but the report’s authors maintain that nanoparticles can pose health risks including DNA damage, inflammation and impaired immune cell function.
  • Aluminium: A study of 30 brands of baby formula in the UK found that they all contained dangerous amounts of aluminium, “at least twice that which is recommended in the European Union for drinking water”. The authors suggest aluminium in formula is not just limited to the UK, but is a global problem. Heavy metals like aluminium can increase our risk of neurological diseases.

What’s lurking in your baby formula will also depend on where you live in the world. Regulations vary – for example, in the United States the FDA does not approve infant formulas before they can be marketed to the public. The European Union typically has stricter standards.

Allergen-Friendly Formulas

For babies who can’t have baby formula made from animal milk, soy has become a popular alternative. Aside from the GMO concerns about soy, it contains high amounts of phytoestrogens, which mimic our production of estrogen in the body. Soy formula feeding may have long-term consequences including early onset puberty, menstrual irregularities and pain, and vaginal cell changes.

How to Choose a decent Baby Formula

You can't throw a stick without hitting yet another article about the benefits of breastfeeding over formula feeding, but that doesn't change the fact that if you can't breastfeed, you can't breastfeed. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Organic Ingredients: While organic doesn’t always equal healthy, at least you know you are mainly getting ingredients that are non-GMO and likely fewer contaminants. Sometimes organic formulas contain almost the exact same ingredients as the conventional brands – just organic. Better? A little. You will still need to read labels on organic formulas for added sugars, palm/canola oil, etc.
  • Whole Foods (as much as possible): Baby formulas need to have carbohydrates, fats, and protein for growth and development. Since newborns aren’t able to digest whole foods, to some degree all the ingredients in baby formula goes through some processing. When I talk about baby formula made from ‘whole foods’, I mean ingredients that aren’t synthetic.
  • Goat Milk: Goat milk is more similar to human breastmilk than cow milk, so this can be an option for those who want to avoid conventional cow’s milk.

How To Further Support Nutrient Needs

It is true that breastmilk, in most cases, will be the perfect food for an infant up until they are ready to consume solid foods. If formula is the option you are choosing, then you'll want to do your best to supplement your formula of choice with additional nutrients. For specific supplement doses and brands, please contact your primary natural healthcare practitioner.

  • Probiotics:  Babies will naturally receive a serious dose of probiotics when birthed through the vaginal canal and in breastmilk. Whether a baby is breastfed or not, a daily dose of infant probiotic will help support digestive and immune health.
  • Vitamin D: Virtually every human on the planet will need Vitamin D support at one time or another. Most mothers are Vitamin D-deficient and very few babies are getting full sun exposure. Check with your natural healthcare practitioner for appropriate dosage and look for olive oil-based Vitamin D drops.
  • DHA/ Vitamin A: Vitamin A is critical for immune health, growth and nervous system development. I recommend cod liver oil given through a straw once the child is on solids, and shows no sign of fish-related allergies. (Please avoid formulas that are 'enriched' with Vitamin A or DHA as these are often in synthetic forms that are less absorbable and could increase risk of reaction).

Other Tips to Make Baby Formula Safer and healthier

  • Use filtered water: When mixing your formula, use the cleanest water you can find. Learn how to choose a great water filter here.
  • Avoid the microwave: Heat your baby formula over low heat on the stove rather than using the microwave (especially since you don’t want to ever heat a plastic baby bottle).
  • Don’t use formula for longer than you need to: Breastfeeding is recommended as the exclusive source of food up until 4 to 6 months, when parents can begin food introductions. Formula shouldn’t be much different. If you need to use baby formula, begin to wean your baby off it as you introduce them to a wide variety of whole foods. Many formula companies are now creating products for toddlers and beyond – this is unnecessary. If your child can eat food, they don’t need formula or dairy milk.

Alternatives to Baby Formula

If you’re really not interested in purchasing formula of any kind, what can you do instead?

Reach out to friends and relatives.
Know any awesome breastfeeding mamas who would be willing to share milk with you? For every woman with low supply issues, there's another woman experiencing the exact opposite.

Connect with a local milk bank or milk-share group.
Even if you don't have anyone in your immediate network who is willing to donate breastmilk, there are lots of organized groups designed to solve just that problem. If your baby is premature or hospitalized due to illness, you may be able to get pasteurized donor milk by prescription through a milk bank. But even if your baby is healthy, there are a variety of other networking groups available to help you find a donor, such as Human Milk 4 Human Babies. Just remember that in most cases, safety screenings will be up to you to arrange.

Making your own formula.
There are recipes out there for homemade baby formula, which may be right for you, depending on your comfort level. One such recipe was created by the Weston A. Price Foundation. I recommend discussing this option with your pediatrician or natural health care practitioner.

You may need to use baby formula if your situation depends on it. But you have the power to decide which formula you feed your baby. And don't beat yourself up about it. Your baby will only be on formula for a short amount of their lifespan. What you feed your kid later is just as important, so you can load them up with nutritious foods as they get older.

I Didn't Create The Problem

Since I first addressed this topic, long before I had a child of my own, there was a lot of animosity towards me and around this topic. Here is what you need to know, and everyone needs to know: It is absolutely a problem of economics. Those who can afford better formula can get better formula. Those who can't, have to make do with what's available in most supermarkets or given by doctors. I didn't create this problem but it is a problem. Every mother on the planet should have the right to offer their baby the very best in nutrition. If you are feeling outraged by this basic inequality that can set a child's health for life, then write to the companies making the garbage products. Implore them to do better. Make your own noise about it, because it is worthy of noise-making. It needs to change.

Reader Recommended Brands

I personally do not have experience in using ready-made formulas and though I can read ingredient labels, there is no substitute for the actual experience of caregivers and how their babies respond. Please review the comments below and see what other readers have recommended. You might also wish to join the Little Warriors Facebook group operated by two nutritionist colleagues of mine.

Did you struggle with breastfeeding? How did you decide on an alternative? Or do you know of an amazing ready-made option?

baby formula ingredients to avoid

53 Responses to “Baby Formula: What to Look For, What to Avoid and When to Use It”

  1. zayden said…
    As always, great article. As a new mom what I found most important wa s educating myself on HOW breastfeeding works, how much a baby really needs in those first few days, how to establish a good breastfeeding relationship by putting baby (not bottle or pacifier) to breast as MUCH as possible...knowing that the more you nurse/pump the more your body will make. Getting in touch with a certified lactation consultant is so important. As you said, sometimes there are reasons outside of our control that prevent us from breastfeeding but I have found that a lot of misinformation is what prevents a lot of moms from breastfeeding. Thanks again for the article!
  2. zayden said…
    ps: THIS: "And don’t beat yourself up — remember that what you feed your kid later is just as important." is a great point.
  3. Katya said…
    Thank you for the information and the encouragement, Meghan! Trying EVERYTHING I possibly could and still not being able to breastfeed my daughter exclusively was probably one of the biggest disappointments I've lived through. I pumped as much as I could produce until she was 9 months old and supplemented the rest with Nature's One Baby's Only Organic formula to which I added an infant probiotic, cod liver oil and an egg yolk (starting at 5 months) from a pasture raised organic-ly fed chickens. I got a lot of info from the Weston Price Foundation website and a book Super Nutrition for Babies. What I learned from the experience of becoming a mom is that while you are pretty much doing cartwheels in an effort to figure out what is best for your baby, there will be a point where you might need to learn to let go of your own sky high expectations of yourself and accept a reasonable compromise. To me, it was finding that best alternative for the ready made formula, adding a few more important nutrients to it, and then focusing on starting my daughter off with the right solids, which, as you mentioned, is just as important. Thanks again for the encouraging words and for all of the inspiring and important work that you are doing to change the way we all eat!
  4. Suzie said…
    Thank you for this information and for this reassurance. I will be having my baby soon and my biggest point of anxiety is in regards to the breast feeding/bottle feeding issue. I have read many books and blogs regarding this topic and have attended BF classes and although my whole plan is to try and breast feed, that plan may not work out, as we all know that in life sometimes that happens. With the amount of research I have done and classes I have attended, I've never heard someone mention the fact that "if you can't BF, it's ok, there are alternatives, and you're still a good mother" until I came across your article. Thank you again:)
  5. Scott said…
    The very fact that there is a suggestion to speak to "your paediatrician or naturopath"--as though those two are at all equal--speaks to the falsehoods contained herein.
  6. Luna said…
    Love your website and this article. I am wondering if you have any contacts or you recommend any particular brand of formula. I am a breast cancer survivor and will be having a true "miracle" baby in about five months. I will not be able to breast feed and it is distressing that I can't seem to find any brand that is decent. As you mentioned, even the organic kinds have bad stuff in them. I am in the U.S. if you or any moms have ideas, I would love to hear what has worked for others!P.S. Great article. I can't believe that this is what hospitals use and recommend, too!
    • Meghan Telpner said…
      Have you looked into the leche league in your area?
      • Keirele said…
        Luna, I'm in a similar boat. If I have another child, I won't be able to breastfeed. Sadly, I did not find LLL helpful at all when I started researching my options. I was told I should not have a child if I cannot breastfeed! Ouch. I found an o/b that specializes in working with my specific illness and she's been extremely helpful with questions like these. I have a friend who makes her own formula — she uses Holle in a pinch — but if you do this, please, please, please, run your recipe past a health professional.
  7. William Bradley said…
    Another excellent post! It's crazy how people attack those of us that point out how the major formula brands contain GMOs and other nasty ingredients when instead we should all be on the same side: the infant's side. There are health options available ( organic, GM free) for those that can't breastfeed, and they should be considered over using these potentially immune damaging, mass produced formulas.
  8. Rebecca Grove said…
    one thing I'd change, although I understand why Meghan​ chose the language she did, would be the 'benefits' of breast milk. breast milk doesn't have benefits, formula has risks. it's a scary word, risk. but it's a risk, even if it's a necessary one. Thank you for this article.
    • Meghan Telpner said…
      I'm not sure what you mean? Breast milk has definite immune system establishing benefits.
  9. Marilena said…
    Yes insightful. What I am finding frustrating is there is a lot of research and information to find however I can't find any store/market in Toronto or Canada the sells the good stuff (organic formula that contains no bad stuff). The only thing i have found is Earths Best everywhere, however that has some bad ingredients. Yes there is kijii but i don't know how reputable the seller would be. Please help!
  10. Andrea said…
    Yes! I need formula in Toronto stat. My baby is starting week 3 of life and after help from 5 experts, we're needing to supplement. I've had to use whatever I can find here but the ingredients!!! Where can I get Holle or something else reasonable?? Please help!!

Before you post your comment, please note that I am unable to offer nutritional advice or recommendations via my blog.

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