Baby Formula Ingredients: What’s in it?

Published on December 4th, 2020

Sharing a meal is a cornerstone of family and community—holiday celebrations, birthday parties, family dinners, and, even feeding time for your little one. Baby feeding may contain more spit-up than the other three meals combined, but it’s still a special time between mother and child.

When your baby is still brand new to the world, she has two menu options: breastmilk and infant formula. SneakPeek Traits lets you know if your child is genetically inclined to be low in certain vitamins and key nutrients, and arms you with more information as you develop your child’s diet. It’s important to know how many calories your baby needs, and also how to get them. In this article, we’ll dive into what infant formula is and how it nourishes your child and helps her grow up healthy and happy. 

Baby Formula: What Is It?

Baby formula is a manufactured substitute for breast milk, intended to simulate the desired health benefits for those unable to breastfeed. But you might wonder if you could just replace breast milk with a different kind, like cow’s milk,and get the same results? 

Not so much. 

In evolutionary terms, human milk was always meant to nourish our little ones, and cow’s milk was intended to feed their baby calves. While cow milk may be easily drunk by calves, dairy milk is a more difficult drink for infants to digest. A baby’s undeveloped kidneys can’t properly process the high amounts of specific proteins and minerals found in cow’s milk. Instead of nourishing your child, cow’s milk might lead to serious illness. 

That’s why baby formula ingredients are chosen to recreate the exact composition of human milk. 

Different Kinds of Baby Formula

While all infant formula is designed to fill your baby’s tummy with key nutrients, not every infant formula does so in the same way. There’s a whole shelf of various kinds of baby formula, each designed to help various infant nutritional needs.

They include:

  • Cow’s Milk Protein – While it may be awhile before your child has his first glass of milk (possibly accompanied by cookies), he can still enjoy the benefits of infant formula derived from cow milk protein. Cow milk formula is considered the most similar to breast milk and is the most popular type of formula thanks to its balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
  • Goat’s Milk – Cows aren’t the only ones that can provide your child with the nutrients she needs to grow up strong! Goat’s milk is naturally high in some of the most important vitamins for your baby’s growth, including vitamin A, thiamin, and riboflavin. Some doctors may recommend goat milk formula over cow’s milk if your child has a hard time digesting foods. The nourishing fats in goat milk are “shorter” than cow’s milk fats, making them easier for your child’s tummy to break down.
  • Hydrolyzed Protein – Don’t let the science jargon scare you—partially hydrolyzed protein formula is a different kind of cow’s milk formula. The milk proteins in partially hydrolyzed protein have been broken down into smaller components, making them easier to digest. There are two varieties:
    • Partially Hydrolyzed Protein – Partially hydrolyzed protein formulas contain proteins that are broken down, but there are still larger milk proteins in the mix.
    • Extensively Hydrolyzed Protein – In extensively hydrolyzed protein formulas, all the milk proteins are broken down into small pieces. Doctors might recommend this kind of formula for a baby that is dairy intolerant or with a cow’s milk protein allergy. This particular formula is also lactose free.
  • Amino Acid – What happens when you break down a protein? You get amino acids! Manufacturers of amino acid infant formulas have taken apart the molecules of cow’s milk protein into their absolute smallest units—amino acids. These formulas are lactose free and ideal for children with a cow’s milk protein allergy or even milk protein-induced proctocolitis.
  • Soy – Just like your favorite coffee shop offers alternative milks for your go-to coffee drinks, infant formulas come in dairy-free options as well. Soy-based infant formulas come with all the same nutrients as cow milk formulas but are derived from (you guessed it) soybeans. Soy infant formula is packed with protein and is free of lactose and cow milk protein.

Even better? Studies show that there’s virtually no developmental difference between children who drink dairy-based formula or breastmilk and soy-based infant formula. 

What’s in baby formula?

All baby formulas differ slightly, but each formula contains a few essential components:

  • Protein – A macronutrient—or a nutrient your body needs large amounts of—that helps build muscle mass, bones, and teeth.
  • Fat – Also called lipids, this substance stores energy and helps the body use vitamins and minerals to maintain your its various systems.
  • Vitamins – Vitamins are nutrients that come from organic materials, like plants or animals, you could probably name a few off the top of your head like vitamin C, vitamin E, and B vitamins.
  • Minerals – Inorganic nutrients that the body needs to sustain itself. Minerals include ingredients like potassium, zinc, and calcium. 

But how do you know if your baby formula has enough of these essentials to keep your child happy and growing? Thankfully, there are checks and balances in place when it comes to ensuring the safety and quality of the formula ingredient list. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates baby formula the same way it oversees everything else you find in the grocery store or pharmacy. 

There are certain ingredient requirements that all baby formulas must meet (measured per 100 kilocalories of formula). 

Protein

There are two types of protein in human milk: 

  • Whey – Very easy to digest, whey protein offers your child important disease-fighting benefits. 
  • Casein – The larger, more complex, and harder to digest protein molecules.

So what’s in breast milk? Mature breast milk contains about 60-80% whey and the rest casein. This combination is optimal for quick and easy digestion. Many formulas have these same proteins—a great start!—but they don’t necessarily contain the right mix. 

Unfortunately, most cow’s milk-based formulas are high in casein concentration. On the other hand, goat’s milk doesn’t contain the same difficult-to-digest protein and is overall gentler on the stomach. Goat’s milk-based formulas might be ideal if your little tater tot has trouble stomaching cow-based milk.

As for soy-based infant formulas? They’re casein and whey free—but that doesn’t mean they come up short when it comes to protein. Soy proteins in soy infant formula are supplemented with additional amino acids to help ensure your child gets a tummy full of bone and cell-building protein. 

Note of caution: If you spot a formula in the store with a higher concentration of protein, this may indicate that the protein is of low quality. More isn’t always better—be sure to investigate which kind of protein it is. At minimum, strive for a 60/40 split between casein and whey protein. 

Fats 

Fats are an essential part of your baby’s diet—which is why it makes sense that about half of the calories in breast milk come from fats. And while there are many different kinds of fats—including “good fats” and “bad fats”—but there’s one type in particular that comes into play when we talk about baby formula ingredients and nutrition.

Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) are vital to infant growth and development, especially for the brain, eyes, and nervous system. Breast milk contains a healthy dose of LC-PUFA, with two especially important components:

  • Arachidonic acid (AA), a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid which helps send growth signals to your child’s body.
  • Docosahexaenodic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that’s vital to your child’s brain, heart, and vision development.

A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that these valuable health benefits can be mimicked using baby formula. When a formula was supplemented to include similar amounts of AA and DHA as human milk, infants’ tissues showed similar LC-PUFA amounts as those who’d been exclusively breastfed. 

According to the FDA, formula must contain a minimum of 3.3 grams and a maximum of 6.0 grams of fat—that’s between 30% and 54% of calories. 

But volume isn’t the only thing we care about. The quality of the fat source is crucial, too. Many U.S.-based formulas are prepared using a combination of vegetable oils to recreate the complex composition of fatty acids found in breast milk.

Below is a list of standard baby formula fat sources and their effectiveness:

  • Coconut oil – This widely-used ingredient is rich in fatty acids, which provide certain health benefits such as low cholesterol. When searching the formula ingredient list, the best version is unrefined organic coconut oil, rather than refined, fractionated, or extra virgin options. 
  • Palm olein oil – When used as the primary fat source, palm olein oil causes poor fat and calcium absorption, leading to lower bone density and constipation. It’s a popular ingredient in many name-brand formulas but it can be difficult for babies to digest. Many experts and mothers recommend avoiding palm and palm olein oil when possible.
  • Soybean oil – This is a somewhat controversial ingredient. Soybean oil is rich in critical fatty acids, but many soy products are processed in a way that may produce trans-fat (an undesirable ingredient in any formula). Using organic soy can mitigate these concerns, but that can be hard to find in popular soy-based formulas.

Judging the formula’s quality—especially its fat sources—can be quite tricky. Just keep your eyes peeled as you research ingredient lists and ask your pediatrician when you have questions.

Note: All infants respond differently to certain fats and oils, even the “good ones.” One or two post-meal spit-ups are ordinary enough, but constant indigestion, vomiting, or discomfort may mean it’s time to try a different recipe.

Vitamins 

Babies need vitamins just like you—unfortunately, your child can’t pop a quick multivitamin before work the same way you can. 

The FDA has minimum and maximum requirements for 29 nutrients in baby formula—whether it’s derived from goat’s milk, cow’s milk, or soybeans—but some of the most important vitamins in your child’s formula are fat soluble vitamins—meaning vitamins that require fat in order to be properly absorbed. Since formula has a higher fat content, your child will have an easy time soaking up all those nutrients.

There are four primary fat-soluble vitamins on the vitamin spectrum, all of which are required in baby formula by the FDA in specific quantities:

  • Between 250 and 750 international units of vitamin A Vitamin A benefits your baby’s eyesight, immune system, reproductive health, and organ function.
  • Between 40 and 100 international units of vitamin D Vitamin D is naturally absorbed through the sun’s rays as well as dietary sources, promoting healthy bone growth.
  • At least 0.7 international units of vitamin E Vitamin E has antioxidant effects, which protects cells from harmful free radicals (the sun’s ultraviolet rays, pollution, cigarette smoke, etc.).
  • At least 4 micrograms of vitamin K Vitamin K assists in the production of prothrombin, a necessary component in bone metabolism and blood clotting. Vitamin K in baby formula can also curb vitamin K deficiencies, which are common in newborns.

When it comes to non-milk baby formulas, there are a few animal-based vitamins that plants can’t quite replicate. That’s why the FDA requires plant-based recipes to contain three additional nutrients to help ensure your child gets the nutrition she needs.

Those three nutrients are: 

  • Biotin – Biotin is a vitamin that helps the body manage blood sugar levels, is essential to creating hair and nails.
  • Choline – This vitamin helps regulate memory, mood, and muscle control. It also helps to form the membrane around your body’s cells.
  • Inositol – Inositol is a vitamin that works with the brain’s chemistry to regulate mood, growth, insulin production and many other important systems of the body.  

Minerals 

Vitamins and minerals go hand in hand. Vitamins come from plants or animals, while minerals are extracted from the earth, but both are valuable micronutrients that you can’t forget about when strolling the grocery store aisles—especially when it comes to formula. 

If you’ve found the right infant formula, your child shouldn’t need any mineral supplements. The FDA mandates 12 unique minerals with carefully determined minimum (and in some cases, maximum) amounts:

  • Calcium – 60 milligrams (mg)
  • Phosphorus – 30 mg
  • Magnesium – 6 mg
  • Iron – Between 0.15 and 3 mg
  • Zinc – 0.5 mg
  • Sodium – Between 20 and 60 mg
  • Potassium – Between 80 and 200 mg
  • Chloride – Between 55 and 150 mg
  • Manganese – 5 micrograms (mcg, equivalent to 0.005 milligrams—a tiny unit) 
  • Copper – 60 mcg
  • Iodine – Between 5 and 75 mcg
  • Selenium – Between 2 and 7 mcg

You can perform a quick cross-check to confirm that the formula you’ve selected is up to code. 

Note of caution: More of each mineral isn’t necessarily the gold standard. For example, soy-based recipes tend to include more minerals, but only because the soy makes it difficult for your child to absorb some of the nutrients. Your baby will absorb about 20% of the calcium from a soy-based formula with palm olein oil, but 55% from a cow’s milk-based recipe with no palm olein. 

Unlocking Your Child’s Nutritional Profile with SneakPeek Traits 

Everyone’s nutritional profile is different, babies included. We all have different likes and dislikes, dietary allergies, and perhaps more difficulty digesting some products over others. 

Your kiddos may not have the words to explain their dietary needs, but they do have the genetics to help guide you to amazing answers about their unique nutritional profile. 

SneakPeek Traits is a simple DNA test that provides valuable information on tons of different genetic features, including—you guessed it—your baby’s nutrition profile. It can let you know the likelihood of your baby being vitamin deficient for 7 key vitamins, as well as predicted BMI based on genetics. Along with learning about your child’s nutritional proclivities, you can learn:

  • Her adult height and eye color
  • Her hair color and shape
  • Whether she’ll be more or less likely to enjoy bitter foods (like broccoli!)
  • Her sleep patterns
  • And more!

Your baby’s formula days will only last for so long. Once she graduates to veggie purees, soft foods, and eventually, full-blown meals, it’s anybody’s game. With the SneakPeek Traits results, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the tumultuous journey of food splatters, spit-ups, and spilled milk. 

Fair warning, though: we can’t make her eat her broccoli! 

Sources: 

Verywell Family. The Protein in Breast Milk. https://www.verywellfamily.com/the-protein-in-breast-milk-3860951

American Pregnancy Association. What’s In Breast Milk? https://americanpregnancy.org/first-year-of-life/whats-in-breastmilk-71018

U.S. Food & Drug Administration. CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=107.100

American Academy of Pediatrics. Why Formula Instead of Cow’s Milk? https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/formula-feeding/Pages/Why-Formula-Instead-of-Cows-Milk.aspx

The Picky Eater. Is Goat Milk Formula Healthier Than Cow’s Milk Formula? https://pickyeaterblog.com/goat-milk-formula-healthier-cows-milk-formula/

European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Role of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in infant nutrition. https://www.nature.com/articles/1601810

Nature’s One. Ask the Dietitian – Why shouldn’t Palm Oil & Palm Olein Oil be in Your Child’s Formula? https://www.naturesone.com/blog/palm-oil/

The Baby Swag. Palm Oil vs Coconut Oil in Baby Formula: What’s the Difference?

https://thebabyswag.com/palm-oil-vs-coconut-oil-in-baby-formula/

Little Bundle. What You Need to Know About Soy in Baby Formula.

https://littlebundle.com/blogs/insights/soy-in-baby-formula#

National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin A. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-Consumer/

National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/

National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin E. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/

Medical News Today. Health benefits and sources of vitamin K. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/219867#uses

Baby Formula Expert. Best Baby Formula – The Ultimate Multi-Vitamin. https://babyformulaexpert.com/baby-formula-vitamins-minerals/

VeryWell Family. Cow’s Milk Formula for Babies. https://www.verywellfamily.com/what-is-cow-milk-formula-284342#

Pediatrics. Developmental Status of 1-Year-Old Infants Fed Breast Milk, Cow’s Milk Formula, or Soy Formula. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/6/1134

SneakPeek aims to provide the most accurate and up-to-date information to help our readers make informed decisions regarding their health before, during, and after pregnancy. This article was written based upon trusted scientific research studies and/or articles. Credible information sources for this article are cited and hyperlinked.

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