If you’re taking the formula route, there are more options for you and your little one than ever before. And as the formula market evolves and expands, many of those options now include organic products to meet the growing demand for quality and sustainable ingredients. But, with all of the available options, a quick trip down the formula aisle can easily turn into a long, overwhelming whirlwind.

The FDA sets very rigid regulations and holds strict nutritional requirements for all infant formula. So, feel confident that any formula you choose will provide your baby with all of his or her nutritional needs for calories, protein, fat and the essential vitamins and minerals. That is why the nutritional breakdowns, ie the nutrition facts, are pretty comparable amongst all formulas.

What: What really differentiates organic from conventional formulas are the sources and quality of the ingredients. In addition to being more environmentally sustainable, organic formulas are made with non-GMO plant-derived ingredients, free of pesticide and herbicide residue, and with milk ingredients from cows, free of antibiotics or growth hormones. Unfortunately, organic formulas are more expensive, and are not as easily available (hello Amazon Prime). And, organic options don’t exist for more specialized, allergy friendly formulas.

Why: All formulas, organic and conventional alike are very processed, so it is not entirely clear if the organic seal comes with significant health advantage. It is always a challenge to find studies conducted on infants, and hard data isn’t always available. The few studies done have not found detectible levels of pesticide residue in infant formulas, nor have they found any health risks associated with milk from cows treated with hormones or antibiotics. But, what we do know is from adult studies, which have shown as much as a 33% reduction in pesticides found in organic products. While the organic and non-GMO landscape is constantly changing and in question, at the moment it is the best seal we have. So if your budget permits, it’s worthwhile to go organic to protect the environment and to reduce your baby’s potential exposure to pesticide, hormone and antibiotic residue.

Who: The main players in the organic formula market are Nature’s One Baby’s Only*, Earth’s Best and Honest Co., whose formula lines are exclusively organic; Bright Beginnings and Parent’s Choice both of which have organic and conventional formulas; and Similac, which is the only major mainstream formula company offering a single organic formula: Similac Advance Organic. These formulas differ in what sources of protein and carbohydrates are used, and if essential fatty acids are added.

Organic formulas can be divided into two main categories: standard cow’s milk and specialty soy or lactose-free formulas. Let’s take a closer look at what’s inside.

Standard Cow’s Milk Based Organic Formula

Fat: All standard organic formulas contain a blend of easy to digest vegetable oils that include sunflower, safflower, coconut and soybean oils. All of these oils, including the soybean, are highly refined so there is little risk of any allergic reactions.

Protein: Standard organic formulas use a blend of the milk proteins whey and casein. Formulas should be designed to closely mimic breast milk, which has a much higher ratio of whey than casein. Earth’s Best and Honest Co. add additional concentrated whey to more closely replicate the protein breakdown of breast milk, whereas other organic formulas do not resulting in higher amounts of casein.

Carbohydrate: The carbohydrate, or sugar, in breast milk is lactose, however all of the organic formula companies replace some or all the lactose with less expensive sugars. Earth’s Best and Honest Co actually maintain some lactose but use glucose syrup solids as an additional carb source. Baby’s Only use no lactose, and use organic brown rice syrup as the sole carbohydrate source, but rest assured that the syrup is vigorously filtered and tested to ensure undetectable levels of arsenic. Bright Beginnings, Parent’s Choice and Similac Organic replace all of the lactose with glucose solids, maltodextrin (corn sugar), and/or sugar. The health effect of different sugar sources in infant formulas has not been well studied. What has been studied are the benefits of lactose, and the blood sugar spiking effects of highly processed sugars like maltodextrin, so if applied to infant formulas, it would be convincing to choose lactose based formulas when possible.

DHA & ARA: The fatty acids found naturally in breast milk have known respiratory, and cognitive benefits, yet are one of the few essential nutrients not required in baby formulas. There has been some question about the integrity of the form of DHA & ARA approved for use in formulas, but because there is little evidence substantiating the claims most brands add DHA & ARA. To give parents the choice, Nature’s One has both a formula with and one without DHA & ARA, and Honest Co does not add the essential fatty acid to its formula. If you choose a formula without the DHA & ARA it is recommended to supplement.

Specialty Reduced Lactose & Soy Based Organic Formula

Earth’s Best and Nature’s One are the only two brands mentioned with a line of organic reduced lactose and soy based formulas. Earth’s Best Organic Sensitivity and Baby’s Only Lactorelief formulas are great alternatives for fussier babies needing gentler, easier to tolerate formula. Soy formulas should be avoided unless specifically advised by your pediatrician for a medical reason.

*There is some confusion as to whether Nature’s One Baby’s Only formula is suitable for infants. It is marketed and labeled as a toddler formula as an attempt to promote breastfeeding until 1 year of age, however it is designed and suitable for infants.

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