I am honored to share this guest post by Charlotte Vallaeys, former of Director of Farm and Food Policy at the Cornucopia Institute and now a Senior Analyst within the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Program at Consumers Union. This is the truth about organic infant formulas that currently exist on the market today and something that needs to be read by every mother-to-be, mothers and fathers everywhere. Unfortunately, choosing an infant formula that is organic is not enough – you must look deeper and understand the ingredients manufacturers are using in their products. Charlotte shares the exact ingredients you need to look out for and how to find the safest organic infant formula available. She holds Masters degrees from Harvard University and Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition.
Some of my favorite memories of my sons as babies (which was not that long ago—they are 2 and 4 years old) involve breastfeeding. It is a truly magical and priceless bonding experience. And for someone who loves good, “real” food as much as I do, there could be nothing more satisfying and empowering than that tingling feeling that accompanies the milk ducts springing into action to produce fresh milk, full of just the right mix of enzymes, nutrients, antibodies, hormones, and other beneficial components that have yet to be discovered—the product of millions of years of evolution, specially made for my baby to ensure he’ll grow and thrive.
But we also faced many obstacles along the way. The challenges started in the hospital with my firstborn and continued up to the moment my lastborn sipped his last drop of human milk.
My oldest, Liam, would not latch on at first. I had expected breastfeeding to be easy—it was, after all, so “natural”—but there I was, a brand new mom with an hours-old baby, struggling to get my newborn to latch on. Those first hours of motherhood ushered in the realization that, in parenthood, not everything will go as planned.
After involving many contraptions, including a hospital-grade breast pump, specialized bottles, and a silicone “nipple shield,” and many different nurses’ and lactation consultants’ advice (not to mention a lot of maternal determination), we finally—after a couple of days—made it work.
When Liam was 9 weeks old, I discovered blood in his diaper and disregarded our pediatrician’s advice to switch from breastfeeding to hypoallergenic formula (she claimed he was allergic to milk, including his mother’s milk). Instead, I continued breastfeeding but cut all dairy and soy out of my diet until Liam’s first birthday.
Among other challenges, we weathered two bouts of painful mastitis and many days of separation for work-related trips that required a freezer full of pumped milk.
The challenges continued until the very end, and unfortunately, my final memories of breastfeeding are also the most painful. When he was 9 months, my second son, Kai, decided to wean on his own. I had heard about “self-weaning,” and until I was faced with an uninterested and stubborn infant, I thought it was just a clever excuse for mothers to switch to more convenient formula feeding. Again, it was a stark reminder that many things about parenthood are easier said than done, and so much of what happens on this journey is entirely out of our control.
I suppose I was more stubborn than Kai, and he eventually became hungry and thirsty enough that he would feed. But he responded by reluctantly drinking and then ending the session with a bite. After a couple of weeks of very tense—and often painful—feeding sessions, I switched to pumping and giving my milk to Kai from a bottle. I grimaced every time I saw him bite down on that rubber nipple. Eventually, after a couple more weeks, I produced no more milk, and that bottle needed something in it for the remaining weeks until we could switch to organic whole milk.
All this baby-feeding drama happened while I worked as a researcher and policy analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. Cornucopia acts as a watchdog for the organic community. As I carefully read labels in the baby food aisle of my local food store, I couldn’t help but notice numerous violations of the organic standards. I avoided these baby foods with multiple unapproved synthetic ingredients. Meanwhile, Cornucopia took a leading role in advocating for the removal of unnecessary or potentially harmful synthetics from organic formula and baby food.
This blog post is for parents, grandparents and others who want more information on organic infant formula. I’d like to share what I learned both as Policy Director at Cornucopia and as a mom looking for the best food for my own babies.
Without a doubt, human milk and factory-produced infant formula don’t compare, as human milk is far superior in so many respects, including in ways we
will probably never fully comprehend. We can all agree on that. But in parenthood, many things don’t go as planned, and for many committed, food-conscious, organic-buying parents, that includes breastfeeding.
I will only cover organic formula, and I hope that readers will understand that while there are many problems in this segment of the organic industry, organic formula is still a far better choice than conventional formula, with its genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs), milk from cows that were likely treated with antibiotics or artificial growth hormones, and oils that were processed with the use of neurotoxic solvents like hexane. Major ingredients in conventional formula are derived from crops that were sprayed with harmful pesticides and herbicides in the field and likely fumigated in storage.
Organic formula offers an alternative, but it is far from perfect. I hope that parents will find the information here useful if faced with the tough decision to turn to formula.
The Organic Formula Industry
If you need formula and can’t make your own, you likely want to know how to purchase the best one.
While there are seven brands of organic infant formula currently available on market shelves, there are only three companies that make organic infant formula in the United States.
One manufacturer is PBM Nutritionals, owned by Perrigo. At $3 billion in annual sales, Perrigo is the world’s largest manufacturer of private label (store-brand) over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. PBM primarily produces conventional formula, but makes organic formula for its own Vermont Organics and Bright Beginnings brands. It also manufacturers organic formula for Hain Celestial’s Earth’s Best brand, Whole Foods Market’s 365 Organic brand, and Walmart’s Parent’s Choice brand.
Similac Organic is manufactured by Abbott Laboratories. Abbott, a major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals in the U.S. introduced Similac Organic in 2006. By 2007, its first full year on sale, Similac Organic captured 36% of the organic formula market. Abbott’s Similac is a market leader in conventional formula.
Finally, Baby’s Only Organic is developed and marketed by Nature’s One. Nature’s One markets Baby’s Only Organic formula as a “toddler formula” rather than an infant formula (according to the company, this is done to encourage breastfeeding until age 1). Its products meet the same nutritional standards that the FDA sets forth for infant formula. Nature’s One is the only company marketing organic formula that is not a publicly traded corporation; the business is family-owned and operated.
Top five ingredients to take a close look at – how do organic brands compare?
1. Sweeteners: corn syrup, sugar, or brown rice syrup
Formula manufacturers strive to formulate a product that mirrors the nutritional profile of human milk. Human milk contains higher levels of lactose, a carbohydrate, than cow milk, which means that formula manufacturers must make up the difference by adding a sweetener to cow milk-based formula.
But in their choice of sweetener, it appears that concerns over the availability and price of the various sources have taken precedence. The sweetener that most closely mimics human milk would be lactose (the naturally occurring carbohydrate in any mammal’s milk). But lactose is also the most expensive, and manufacturers have, over the years, switched from this milk-based sweetener to plant-based sweeteners.
When PBM Nutritionals first rolled out its organic infant formula under the Bright Beginnings brand name, it contained only organic lactose, with no corn-based sweeteners. PBM soon produced the same product for Walmart, under the Parent’s Choice brand name, which also contained only organic lactose.
But PBM Nutritionals switched from organic lactose as the sole sweetener for Bright Beginnings, and so did Walmart’s organic formula, in 2010. Their formulations changed to include both ‘organic corn syrup solids’ and lactose.
By 2011, organic lactose in Bright Beginnings and Parent’s Choice had disappeared altogether, replaced by organic maltodextrin, another plant-based sweetener. Maltodextrins are partially hydrolyzed starch molecules, which can be derived from corn, rice or potatoes. Maltodextrin is less sweet than corn syrup.
Today, Bright Beginnings, Parent’s Choice and Whole Foods’ 365 Organic contain no organic lactose at all—only plant-based (mostly corn-based) carbohydrates.
A similar move away from organic lactose happened with Earth’s Best and Vermont Organics (again, both manufactured by PBM). In 2007, Earth’s Best infant formula contained only organic lactose as the added carbohydrate. When Vermont Organics entered the market in 2008, it mirrored Earth’s Best and also contained only organic lactose. By 2011, both Earth’s Best and Vermont Organics contained reduced amounts of organic lactose, which were replaced with ‘organic glucose syrup solids.’
‘Organic glucose syrup solids’ is another name for ‘organic corn syrup solids,’ which are partially hydrolyzed corn starch molecules that are dried to a low moisture powder (hence the name ‘solids’). Corn syrup solids are moderately sweet (sweeter than maltodextrin).