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As a new mama, it can be confusing to know which formula is best for your baby—and you might have a lot of questions. Are you choosing the ‘best’ formula? How will it affect your baby’s tiny tummy? Which ingredients should you look for? Maybe you’ve already decided you want to use an organic baby formula, but which one?
All formulas, whether organic or conventional, are closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure they meet minimum nutritional requirements. But to be certified as organic, a formula needs to meet a higher standard in terms of how its ingredients are produced.
Here’s what to look for when choosing an organic baby formula.
What does ‘organic’ baby formula mean?
To be labeled organic and feature the USDA Organic seal on a product, it must meet certain criteria from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Namely, it must have at least 95% of its ingredients grown in pesticide-free soil and be free from artificial preservatives, colors or flavors.
It must also use non-GMO ingredients and, in the case of formula, use milk from cows who were not treated with growth hormones.
In other cases, a formula may state that it is “made with organic [name of ingredient here]”, which means that 70% of the ingredients used are organic, but that the other 30% of ingredients are non-organic. This means that some ingredients may have been produced using pesticides. These products will not have the USDA Organic seal.
That said, non-organic or conventional formulas will have the same essential nutritional benefits as organic versions. The FDA has outlined minimum amounts for 29 nutrients and maximum amounts for 9 of those nutrients that all formulas on the market must contain. No infant formula, whether organic or conventional, is allowed to contain any added natural or artificial flavorings or colors.
Because organic formulas tend to be more costly, if cost is a factor, conventional formula should be just fine to meet your baby’s nutritional needs.
Benefits of choosing an organic baby formula
While organic formula can be more expensive than conventional formula, there are certain advantages to choosing organic. Reduced potential pesticide and herbicide exposure is one of the biggest benefits, especially when your baby is so small and their brain is undergoing such rapid development.
Because formula may make up a significant (or total) portion of your infant’s diet, it may be worth opting for a formula made with at least some organic ingredients to try and reduce this exposure. However, it’s still unknown if the pesticide exposure from conventional baby formula is significant enough to affect infant neurodevelopment—more research is needed in this area.
Some organic formulas also feature a higher standard of ingredients. You should be able to find organic formulas made with ingredients that better reflect the components in breast milk, for example, like lactose instead of corn syrup or maltodextrin (a type of sugar also made from corn). Some organic formulas may contain a different protein makeup than conventional formulas, such as a higher ratio of whey to casein protein that is more closely aligned with the ratio found in breast milk. This may be ideal for your baby if they have gassiness or colic after ingesting conventional formula.
What to look for in an organic formula
Many organic formulas on the market feature a cow’s milk base, but some are made from goat’s milk or soy.
They may contain added nutrients like prebiotics, such as human milk oligosaccharides (HMO), lutein, DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid), ARA (an omega-6 fatty acid) and iron.
Related: Baby Feeding Guides & Schedules
When looking for a formula, you’ll need to get good at scanning the nutrition label. Aim to familiarize yourself with the primary types of sugars and fats used in the formula—those are often listed as the first two ingredients on the nutrition label, meaning they’re what make up the largest share of ingredients.
Lactose as a form of sugar is preferable over corn syrup solids, as it’s closer to the makeup of breast milk, and sunflower oil, safflower oil, coconut oil or soybean oil are preferable over palm oil, which can be hard for some infants to digest. You may want to avoid formulas that contain organic brown rice syrup as the primary source of sugar, given its potential to be contaminated with arsenic. If avoiding palm oil is important to you, it’s worth noting that several organic formulas still contain palm oil as one of the primary fat sources.
We also want to highlight that some of our favorite formulas (included below) aren’t USDA-certified organic, but contain mostly organic ingredients or have been created with such a stellar ingredient profile that they still top our list.
If you have questions about what to look for in a formula that’s best for your baby, your child’s pediatrician should be able to recommend a few options and may have samples on hand so you can do a test run before buying a full-size can.
Make your choice early
Even if you’re planning to breastfeed, consider choosing a formula and purchasing one can as back-up *before* your baby arrives, going so far as to tuck it into your hospital go-bag.
That way, if breastfeeding isn’t successful in those early days, you have a formula choice you already feel great about on hand, ready to go. Your future less-stressed self will thank you.
Here are a few of our favorite organic and non-GMO baby formulas of 2022
Jackson BP, Taylor VF, Karagas MR, Punshon T, Cottingham KL. Arsenic, organic foods, and brown rice syrup. Environ Health Perspect. 2012;120(5):623-626. doi:10.1289/ehp.1104619
Liu J, Schelar E. Pesticide exposure and child neurodevelopment: summary and implications. Workplace Health Saf. 2012;60(5):235-243.
A version of this story was published on April 18, 2022. It has been updated.