Do You Need Organic Baby Formula?
November 11, 2014
When it comes to feeding our babies, it's natural to only want the best. And while pediatric nutrition experts generally agree that "the best" for babies is breastfeeding, there are innumerable mothers who, for whatever reason, have to rely on other methods. This is where formula comes in. While breastfeeding has been making a major comeback in pediatrics and culture over the last few decades, formula continues to serve as either an alternative food source or a supplement.
Few issues have caused more pitched battles in the "mommy wars" than that of breastfeeding vs. formula. It's a topic fraught with landmines and traps, as personal anecdotes butt heads with each other and everyone throws their two cents in about what worked for their baby, what they think you should do and what they'd never, ever do. Obviously, it's an intensely personal and individualized thing to talk about. But within that war is a smaller skirmish, and one that's primarily fought in the wealthy neighborhoods of big cities: organic formula vs. regular.
Does a baby who needs formula need organic formula? Is it better? Why is it better? And is there even a difference?
This is a topic that's difficult to find even the most rudimentary unbiased information. A parent doing a simple Google search is first hit with a bevy of links to mommy blogs and alternative food websites (including Food Babe), who guilt trip formula-feeding parents in the first place, then throw in some concern trolling of "well, if you ABSOLUTELY MUST deny your child the benefits of breast milk, at least don't pump them full of chemicals and hormones." This is not what parents need to hear.
Looking for clinical studies doesn't do you any good, either, because there aren't any. Pubmed doesn't bring up a single hit for anything related to a trial studying the difference between organic and regular formula. Few new mothers are eager to sign their infants up for randomized controlled trials, so it's not likely that we'll get any good studies anytime soon, either.
What kind of formula you feed your baby appears to be almost entirely an emotional decision. So how does a parent judge whether they should use organic or regular baby formula? Or do they just need to make their own, which is what many alternative medicine blogs say you should do? There's just no good standard, so you have to go on the recommendations of your pediatrician. But it's likely they won't really have an answer, either. Because there isn't one.
As far as I can tell, you can judge the two on four standards: nutritional value, price, safety and intangible qualities. How do they compare?
Nutritional Value - All formulas, organic or otherwise, must meet the nutrient standards set by the Food and Drug Administration. Everything from the most corporate formula to the most holistic has to do the same thing in the same way. While some might have certain synthetic additives or recipe tweaks, from a basic nutritional standpoint, every formula for a baby of a certain age is the same. They've all been tested and approved by the FDA. None have been found to be contaminated hormones or pesticides, or at least I couldn't find a legitimate news source that said they were.
Organic formula advocates try to push the idea that standard formula has more artificial "chemicals" in it, but we know that chemicals in and of themselves are the basic building blocks of matter, and aren't to be feared or avoided any more than sunshine or air can be avoided. Synthetic nutrients are chemically the same as natural ones, and they're a heck of a lot cheaper.
The one area where organic formula differs from standard is in sweetness. No matter what age they're designed for, formula has to have three component parts: a protein source, a fat source, and a carbohydrate source to aid in the digestion of the other two. Chemically, that carbohydrate source MUST be some kind of sugar. Every formula, no matter how aligned its energy field is, has to have some kind of sugar. While the type and amount of sugar product a formula contains isn't regulated, it has to be in there. If there's no carbohydrate source in the formula, it's not compliant with FDA regulations, not digestible and not something you want to give a baby.
Organic formula makers eschew the standard corn syrup used in regular formula for another source of carbohydrates. This makes organic formula significantly sweeter, and babies are already predisposed to like the sweetness of breast milk. This might lead to weaning and weight issues later in life, but there's no solid research to back that up. Sucrose was the primary sugar used in organic formulas, but it was banned in Europe in 2009 out of obesity concerns, and American formula makers have moved away from it.
What you will not find in any formula is the dreaded high fructose corn syrup. It's not the same thing as corn syrup, though many alt-med blogs haven't gotten that memo. Corn syrup is cheap and is chemically the same as other, more expensive types of sugar. So in and of itself, a formula having corn syrup in it is nothing to worry about. Your baby isn't getting a bottle of sugar.
Safety — Again, assuming your formula is being sold in the US, it has to meet minimum safety standards. An area of concern with organic formula is possible arsenic levels, as the switch from sucrose to other carbohydrate sources has led to brown rice syrup being used. A 2012 study finding significantly higher arsenic levels in rice-based formulas sent organic-using parents into fear spasms, but it doesn't appear as if those test results have been repeated. It's also not clear what long-term effect this has on babies.
All the same, it's sensible advice to avoid formulas made with brown rice syrup if you're concerned about the issue. Formula makers have taken this into account, and since moved toward using lactose made from cow's milk. But like sucrose, this is extremely expensive. Other concerns, such as about GMO's in formula or pesticides, are mostly the stuff of alt med scares.
Cost — This is the area where organic and regular formulas differ the most. The alternative sugar products in organic formulas drive their price up quite a bit, putting them out of reach of many working families. While it's viable to question the ethics of such practices, formula makers often shower new parents with samples and coupons, making formula that much cheaper.
Standard formula usually comes in around a dollar an ounce, with many variables for brand and additives. Organics come in closer to $1.20 an ounce, and also come in smaller packages. Add the increased cost to the smaller packages and lack of coupons and you can end up spending quite a bit more to get something that's chemically the same as the less-expensive alternative.
Intangibles — This is the one area of study that can't be quantified. If it makes you feel like your baby is getting a more nutritious, safer bottle by going organic, then by all means, go organic. If you want to avoid possible trace pesticides, GMO's and anything that smacks of corn syrup, that's your right to do so, and you won't be hurting your baby one bit. But if you have to use formula and can't afford the organic stuff, then you likewise won't be hurting your baby one bit.
Parenting decisions can't be made by anyone other than the parents, in consultation with their pediatrician. Blogs can't decide for you, alt med gurus can't decide for you, formula companies can't decide for you and in this case, scientific research can't decide for you.
So should you go with organic or regular formula? I have no idea. Is one "better" than the other? From a nutritional standpoint, no. But from an additive standpoint, maybe. Is one cheaper than the other? Absolutely yes. You simply have to decide which of these means more to you.
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