How to Choose the Best Baby Formula Series: Baby formula = The ultimate multi-vitamin
If you’ve read this far in the series, then you are officially an information-junkie and I enthusiastically applaud your search for knowledge about your baby’s nutrition. You’re already an expert on the macronutrients in baby formula… which is roughly 98% of formula!
“Contains less than 2%”
The remainder of what is in infant formula is primarily the vitamins and minerals baby needs. You’ll see these listed on the ingredients list after the bolded phrase, “contains less than 2% of”. This is because, compared to the volume of carbs, fat, and protein, the volume of the vitamins and minerals is very small. However, as you may guess, that doesn’t mean they are not important! Since the minimum amounts of 27 of these vitamins and minerals are regulated by the FDA, there is not as much variability to discuss here.
Some formulas do add bonus non-required “nutrients” (lutein is an example). This is great! However, I would prefer you look for a macronutrients before you start stressing about bonus nutrients added at less than 2% of the volume. Understanding the chemical names of the vitamins and minerals given in the list of ingredients can be very confusing! Later on, I’ll give an example list of ingredients along with a translation of what each ingredient is. This should help you decode your label.
Another reason I don’t like soy formula as a starter formula:
Because there is little variation in the vitamins and minerals (aka: micronutrients) added to baby formula, I only want to educate you on a few points regarding micronutrients in formula. The first is related to soy-based formulas. Soy contains large amounts of phytate, which is a molecule that can bind to certain minerals and sequester them (translation = hold them hostage) so that baby’s intestines can’t absorb them. For this reason, soy-based baby formulas have to contain more minerals than those made from cow’s milk in order to ensure babies get enough minerals to grow. For example, if you compare Gerber® Good Start Gentle (cow’s milk-based formula) with Gerber® Good Start Soy, you will see that the Soy contains more of 10 minerals – all minerals except Copper and Selenium.
Calcium is a great example. Breastfed babies absorb 60% of the calcium in breast milk. Babies fed cow’s milk-based formula absorb roughly 55% of the calcium if the formula does not contain any palm olein oil, and 40% of the calcium if the formula does contain palm olein oil (1-3). It’s even worse for soy-based formulas. If the soy-based formula contains no palm olein oil, baby will absorb roughly 35% of the calcium. If the formula does contain palm olein oil, then calcium absorption drops to an all-low 20% (3).
It is for this reason that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated that soy formula should never be the sole source of nutrition for premature infants (4). Because these babies have an even greater need for minerals than healthy term infants, the inhibitors in soy formula can make it impossible for them to absorb enough minerals to grow properly. I have not hidden my general lack of enthusiasm for soy-based formulas, and this is another major reason.
Amount of Iron in Baby Formula:
There is A LOT of iron in US baby formulas. Low-Iron formulas used to be “a thing”, but now they are basically impossible to find. In general, most main baby formulas in the US have similarly high amounts of iron. The usual concentration is 1.8 mg of iron (per 100 calories of formula). The reason I bring this up is … Iron is often overlooked as a possible reason baby’s don’t tolerate a formula well. In large amounts, iron can cause stomach-upset, constipation particularly. Remember those horse-pill prenatals and how they made you feel nauseous? Well, that was because of all the iron. I have found that some babies seem particularly sensitive to the high concentrations of iron in formula. Constipation is a common symptom (in my opinion).
Some new formula companies seem to agree with me and we now have a few formulas on the market (Happy Baby brand and ByHeart brand) that have the lowest iron allowed without putting the words “additional iron may be necessary” on the label. This is 1.0mg of iron per 100cal of formula. Note that is 56% less iron than the other brands that have 1.8mg iron.
The last thing to know about baby formula iron is:
European Formulas usually have WAY LESS IRON than US formulas.
I take an unconventional stance on iron and tend to agree more with the iron ranges set in Europe vs those set in the US. And in fact the lower concentrations in European formulas are still well above the minimum amount set by the FDA. I have a hunch that the lower iron may be a reason many parents find their baby “prefers” one of these European brands. But the same fact goes both ways. If your pediatrician has suggested you supplement with formula because your baby is iron deficient, then a US formula is a much better choice than a European formula because we add so much more iron to our formulas here. Regardless of iron, European formulas carry some significant risks that you need to talk with your pediatrician about before using one. I’ve got all the details here for you.
But why is the label so full of nasty-looking chemicals??
Baby formula really is the ultimate multi-vitamin since it has to provide Baby with everything he needs to grow. Unfortunately, the FDA requires that the chemical name of ingredients be listed on the label list of ingredients. So instead of seeing the a term you are familiar with, you will see the organic chemistry designation for each vitamin and mineral added. The chemical names of some of these vitamins and minerals can be really scary to see on the list of ingredients. For example, why does it have to say “cyanocobalamin”… what the heck is that? nano-robots??
Well, it’s actually just vitamin B-12…. but that would be way to easy to say, huh? Apparently, we need to make things as hard as possible for parents these days.
So in short, fear not! All those scary chemicals are actually good-old vitamins and minerals.
If you want a full translation of possible ingredients, check out my Formula Ingredients Cheat Sheet – which will translate all the terrifying chemical names into the vitamin/mineral it is providing your angel.
- There is also very little variation in the vitamin and mineral content in baby formula as most of these are regulated by the FDA.
- Soy-based baby formula must contain more of several minerals because the phytate in soy keeps these minerals from being absorbed well.
- Premature babies should never be fed soy formula, and I do not recommend it for term babies either.
- You will see the chemical term for vitamins and minerals listed on the list of ingredients.
As the parent of a newborn, I am sure you have lots of spare time to leisurely read through all of my detailed articles. But on the off-chance you don’t have excess leisure time – you can click the button below to get a lovely summary of the take-home points of this flagship article series. I’d love to help!
1.Nelson, S. E., Frantz, J. A., and Ziegler, E. E. (1998) Absorption of fat and calcium by infants fed a milk-based formula containing palm olein. J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 17, 327-332
2.Nelson, S. E., Rogers, R. R., Frantz, J. A., and Ziegler, E. E. (1996) Palm olein in infant formula: absorption of fat and minerals by normal infants. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 64, 291-296
3.Ostrom, K. M., Borschel, M. W., Westcott, J. E., Richardson, K. S., and Krebs, N. F. (2002) Lower calcium absorption in infants fed casein hydrolysate- and soy protein-based infant formulas containing palm olein versus formulas without palm olein. J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 21, 564-569
4.Bhatia, J., Greer, F., and American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on, N. (2008) Use of soy protein-based formulas in infant feeding. Pediatrics 121, 1062-1068