Whether you feed your baby formula out of choice or necessity, you want to give them the very best you can—and for some parents, that means going organic. All infant formulas are closely monitored by the Food and Drug Administration to make sure they adhere to certain nutritional standards, but organic baby formulas have to meet special federal guidelines to get the certified stamp.
Just like organic produce or dairy products, organic formula must be created with certified organic ingredients and processing aids. These formulas are also GMO-free, and they must comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances—which means that some preservatives, flavors, and other additives found in standard formulas are missing from organic formulas.
"With increasing concerns about our food sources and the potential chemicals and pesticides that our food may be exposed to, choosing organic is a practical option for parents who want to minimize their child's exposure to pesticide residues and potentially harmful chemicals with manufacturing formula," says nutritionist Crystal Karges. She says it's also a solid choice for babies with a compromised immune system or endocrine dysfunction, because it can help reduce further health problems associated with consuming formula that may have traces of pesticides.
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We know what's not in organic formula, according to federal regulations, but what is in it? That can vary widely between brands, and experts recommend reading the labels closely to make sure you're comfortable with the ingredients.
Most organic options has a cow's milk base, but some are made with soy or goat's milk. They may contain additives such as DHA, ARA, prebiotics, probiotics, or whey protein to help them more closely resemble breastmilk.
Nutritionist Natalie Gillett argues that the ingredients used in organic products are not necessarily better than in conventional formula.
"For example, many organic formula brands use glucose and corn syrup solids as their source of carbohydrates—versus lactose, which is the carb source in breast milk," she says. "Also, the controversial palm oil is a fat source for many organic formulas… While it is not necessarily bad to consume these, I prefer formulas with better quality carbs and fats such as lactose and sunflower/safflower oil, respectively.
"The goal is to choose a formula with a nutritional profile as close to breast milk as possible," she adds. "There's definitely no corn syrup solids in breast milk!"
It's also important to note that organic doesn't necessarily mean all-natural. Childbirth educator Genevieve Howland notes that the FDA requires all formula to have certain nutrients and preservatives that can only be created synthetically, such as lutein, lycopene, nucleotides, taurine, and L-Carnitine. Although accepted in the U.S., many of these ingredients are banned in the European Union, which is why some organic sticklers prefer European brands of formula.
"There's a broader question to ask when assessing formula, and that's, 'what type of ingredients are in the formula?' Howland says. "Not all formula—whether organic or otherwise—contains the same profile of protein, fat, and carbs."
Like organic food and other goods, organic formula comes with a higher price tag than standard options, and it's up to you to decide whether it's worth the extra expense.
"I think when it comes to organic formula, it's important to consider chronic exposure to something over time," Karges says. "So if your baby is receiving formula occasionally and cost is a factor, choosing conventional formula is an adequate option. However, for a baby who is receiving formula as their primary nutrition source, it may be worth considering buying organic to help minimize the exposure to chemicals and pesticides over time."
"If the cost of organic formula is too great for your family, do not let that affect the way you feed your baby," Howland says. "Never cut back on feedings in order to use organic formula. A healthy baby is a fed baby."
There are more brands of organic formula on the market now than ever before, and companies are regularly refining their ingredients lists to create the best formula for your baby.
"I like to encourage parents to choose an organic formula brand option that meets their individual baby's needs, as all formulas will vary slightly with ingredients," Karges says. "Some of the name organic brands that are my favorite include Earth's Best Standard Dairy Formula and Sensitivity Formula, Plum Organics Formula, and Happy Baby Formula."
Howland is a fan of European brand HiPP's Organic Infant Milk.
"European formulations don't have to include various synthetic ingredients per the FDA, but are still safe and provide a great source of nutrition," she says. "My favorite of these brands is HiPP, which contains important prebiotics, omegas 3 and 6 for healthy brain development and immune function, as well as various other vitamins and minerals. It also uses organic milk, which means no pesticides or GMOs. The downside is this formula is very difficult to get in the U.S., which means you often have to pay hefty shipping fees, making it a very expensive choice."
Stateside, Howland recommends Nature's One baby formulas.
"They have several organic formulations for special needs and their products don't contain carrageenan or palm oil, which is harmful and disruptive to baby's delicate digestive system," she says. "And unlike other brands of organic formula, this company uses an FDA-approved non-hexane method of extracting DHA and ARA. The downside? They do use brown rice syrup as a sweetener, which can be high in arsenic. The company says a 'qualified, world renowned, third-party, independent lab' tests arsenic levels in their organic brown rice syrup, but it's something to consider."
Gillett encourages consumers to consider non-organic brands as well, such as Pure Bliss by Similac. "This formula comes from grass-fed cows and is non-GMO, and has no artificial growth hormones or antibiotics," Gillett says. "It contains lactose as a source of carbs, safflower oil for fat, and contains DHA and ARA for brain development, as well as lutein for eye health. Again, I'd rather focus on ingredient list versus whether it's organic or not."