What Makes the Best Baby Formula?
When breastfeeding may no longer be an option, sometimes parents must resort to formula feeding. While all baby formulas are FDA regulated and safe for your baby, Reviews.com did some deeper research into what makes the best formula and what to look for when choosing the right one for your baby. You can see a summary of a portion of their article below:
What We Looked For
Lactose as a Sweetener
Yum, carbs. Turns out that babies love that sugary taste just as much as grown-ups — and in fact, they require it. Breast milk gets its sweetness from lactose. However, lactose can be expensive, so many formula makers have switched to lower-cost plant-based sweeteners, including corn syrup solids, glucose syrup solids, maltodextrin, and cane sugar or sucrose itself.
The issue isn’t necessarily the type of sweetener, but how sweet it is to the taste. For instance, lactose isn’t nearly as intensely sweet as sucrose. Maltodextrin, which can be derived from potato starch, corn starch, or rice starch, is also less sweet than sucrose. This handy chart shows relative sweetness as compared to sucrose. Notice that corn syrup solids are much less sweet than high-fructose corn syrup (only the former is used in infant formula, so no worries there).
The concern is that overly sweet formulas will lead infants to develop a taste for extra sugar as they get older. Over consumption of sweet foods (especially sugary drinks) is widely linked to obesity and other poor health outcomes. An NBC investigation found that some formulas have much higher levels of sweetener per gram than others. A separate investigation by The New York Times into the sweetness of a popular organic brand formula found that it was as sweet as grape juice.
The medical community is divided on whether this is a health concern or not. “Since before the advent of infant formulas, sugar has been added to cow milk fed to infants,” says Dr. Greer. “I do not know of any harm of adding sugar to infant formula to increase its sugar content closer to that found in human milk.” However, others disagree. The EU, citing concerns about childhood obesity, has banned sucrose and cane sugar from infant formulas and mandates the use of lactose for at least 50 percent of the carbohydrate. Vallaeys affirms, “If you’re going to feed an infant, and the infant’s natural food is breast milk, lactose is the kind of sugar to use.”
With this question unresolved, when it comes to dairy formulas, we favored those that use lactose as the main sweetener.
Formulas Designed for Easy Digestion
There are two main ways formulas can be adapted for better digestion. Partially hydrolyzed formulas give tiny tummies a head start in breaking down proteins. “Partially digested formulas are excellent for irritable babies,” Dr. Cohen says (though not for babies with true allergies).
A good whey-casein ratio is also important. Breast milk is about 60 percent whey and 40 percent casein — some sources have it more like 70:30 — while cow’s milk is about 82 percent casein. We wanted formulas that have a higher whey ratio that mimics breast milk.
Close-up of testing for Baby Formula
These days, the majority of infant formulas are enhanced with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). These tongue-twisting ingredients may sound like scary chemicals, but DHA and ARA are just omega-3 fatty acids that occur naturally in breast milk and certain foods, like eggs and fish. In the vast majority of enhanced infant formulas, the DHA and ARA are extracted from algae and fungal sources.
Some research indicates that this added DHA and ARA can help infant eyesight and brain development; other studies say benefits are inconclusive. Nonetheless, they’re widely used in infant formulas, and the majority of the medical community agrees they’re helpful. Dr. Cohen says, “I do emphasize that DHA is really important.” Because of this and their sheer prevalence, all our top picks contain these additives.
That said, DHA and ARA are not without controversy. A chemical called hexane is used to extract DHA and ARA from their algae and fungal sources. This rings alarm bells for organic proponents because of the toxic nature of hexane. It is possible to use a water-extraction process, but the FDA has yet to study and approve this for infant formulas. Vallaeys notes that the National Organic Standards Board actually voted not to allow DHA and ARA extracted with hexane in organic infant formulas, but the USDA has not enforced this. The food policy think tank Cornucopia Institute has reviewed the research and raised serious concerns about the use of hexane-extracted DHA and ARA in formulas, related to how these additives are processed and overseen, and whether they truly provide the touted benefits. These days, it’s difficult to find a formula that doesn’t include added DHA and ARA, but if you are concerned about this issue, Honest Co. Organic Infant Formula is a good choice.
All organic formulas must use non-GMO ingredients, but other formulas also use non-GMO ingredients. Vallaeys explains that the majority of GMO crops grown in the US are genetically engineered to resist pesticides, especially glyphosate, which is the “most commonly used herbicide in the US.” Therefore, “the farmer can spray the weed killer in a field with the GMO corn and soy plants, which won’t be killed by it. Glyphosate is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as probably carcinogenic to humans. It’s why we consider it to be such a concern.” Given the potential risk for even small amounts of pesticide residue, we preferred formulas that use non-GMO ingredients.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Ready for another set of tongue twisters? Many infant formulas now include prebiotics (usually galacto-oligosaccharides) and probiotics (beneficial bacteria.) Probiotics promote healthy digestion, while prebiotics can strengthen immune systems. Both show up naturally in breast milk, and in large quantities. Research is positive about these enhancements. For example, studies show that probiotics can help babies with diarrhea and viral tummy troubles, while prebiotics alone or in combination with probiotics can help reduce eczema and other allergic reactions. In the fight against fussiness and the quest for a happy baby, prebiotics and probiotics could help you get there. That’s why the majority of our top picks contain one or both of them.
To see more of their research, visit http://www.reviews.com/baby-formula/