How to Choose the Best Infant Formula

How to Choose the Best Infant Formula
  • Dr. Taylor Wallace
  • December 13, 2021

Breastfeeding has been thought to be the best source of nutrition (vs. infant formula) for most infants and research suggests that it can also reduce the risk for certain health conditions in both infants and mothers.  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6-months, even though the actual data for these recommendations are limited at best.  Most women have trouble accomplishing this monumental task, so don’t fret if you’re having an issue.  Data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show only about one-fourth of women report exclusive breastfeeding through 6-months of age.  We’ll dig into the science of infant formulas in just a moment.

Why Nutrition Experts Recommend Breastfeeding?

Infants who are breastfed have been shown to have a reduced risk of asthma, obesity, type-1 diabetes, severe lower respiratory disease, ear infections, and GI infections among some observational studies.  There is a high likelihood that these studies are confounded by factors such as socioeconomic status and parental dietary patterns.  Breastfed infants have been shown to exhibit a more diverse GI microbiome compared to formula-fed infants, but there is an absence of consistent clinical data linking this to overall improved health status.  While a growing body of evidence shows a diverse microbiome can help ward off disease, the microbiome rapidly turns over and is heavily influenced by diet and other lifestyle (e.g., antibiotic use) and genetic (e.g., hormone levels) factors throughout life.

Breastfeeding has been shown to lower a mother’s risk of high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, ovarian cancer, and breast cancer.  This data, while more evident, is limited to the duration of breastfeeding and does not take into account the question of exclusivity.

The bottom line is “breast is great” but you won’t be depriving your child of a Nobel prize for not exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6-months.  The decision to breastfeed is a personal one.  As a mom, you deserve support no matter how you decide to feed your baby.

How to Choose the Right Infant Formula

Infant formula has evolved over the last 100-years alongside our knowledge of nutrition science.  Companies reformulate infant formula products to reflect current science and new regulations, which makes studying the health effects formula vs. breast feeding over time difficult.  While all infant formula is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some higher quality products (Bobbie Organic Infant Formula®) go above and beyond basic requirements.

Ignore the front of the infant formula label. Words like “sensitive” and “gentle” are not regulated and can be meaningless.  Instead, go straight to the Nutrition Facts Panel.

The U.S. Infant Formula Act establishes minimum requirements for ~30 nutrients and quality measures to ensure safety.  Here are the basics.

 Protein – Standard infant formulas do not process the protein at all, which takes more digestive work to absorb.  On the list of ingredients, you may see the words “partially hydrolyzed” in front of the protein (e.g., milk protein, soy protein isolate, etc).  This means that the proteins are broken down to be smaller in size, similar to the proteins in breast milk.

Carbohydrates: Lactose is the main carbohydrate source in breast milk.  There are some reasons that babies thrive on a formula that is lactose-reduced, but these products are mostly useful for babies who were premature or who have irritated digestive tracts.  If your baby is healthy and starting infant formula, stick with a lactose-based formula.  Babies are biologically set up to digest lactose and lactose intolerance is extremely rare among newborns.

A nutrient that is gaining a lot of recent traction in the research community is choline, which is being suggested to be crucial for brain development during pregnancy and early childhood.  Choline is a precursor to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and a small clinical study by Cornell University researchers showed that higher maternal intakes during the third trimester have lasting effects that extend into the school age years.  The American Medical Association (AMA) recently recommended choline as part of the prenatal supplement regimen but the nutrient is not present in large quantities due to its bulkiness.  Infant formulas with higher levels of DHA and EPA are also a plus. U.S. infant formula regulations do not require the addition of DHA unlike those in the European Union!

European Black-Market Formula

Demand for European “black market formula” has increased substantially in the United States, due to its perceived nutritional superiority.  These infant formulas are not regulated by the FDA and can put your baby at risk.  For example, if a product is recalled for a safety issue there is no way for a parent residing in the U.S. to know that the product is defective or harmful.  There can also be issues with product quality and safety during trans-Atlantic transport.  Be savvy and stick with high-quality regulated products in the U.S.

Interested in learning more?  Check out my online educational courses here.  All recommended products can be found on my Amazon store.

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