If you read the label on the back of infant formula, you'll notice some ingredients that might surprise you, like corn syrup and sucrose. Those sound a lot like added sugar, the kind of thing you try to avoid in other packaged foods. So why is it there—and should you try to find a formula without it?
First things first: These ingredients are not considered added sugars like they would be in cookies. They serve as carbohydrates, which your baby needs for energy and growth. Babies can't digest complex carbohydrates like fiber, so the carbs in formula need to be simple and easily broken down.
The carbohydrate in breast milk is lactose (the same naturally occurring sugar that's found in cow's milk). Many manufacturers use lactose as a main carb source in formula to mimic the composition of breast milk and because it's easy to digest.
But other sugars may be used as well. For instance, lactose-reduced or lactose-free formulas (including soy formula, formula designed for preemies, and some "sensitive" formulas) use other simple carbs including corn syrup and sucrose to maintain the correct carbohydrate level, explains Bridget Young, PhD, a certified lactation counselor and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester. She adds that these carbs may also be used in partially hydrolyzed formulas to mask the distinctive odor and flavor that comes from breaking down proteins.
"All of these carbohydrates have been shown through clinical studies and many years of consumer use to be safe and support normal growth and development in infants," says Mardi Mountford, President of the Infant Nutrition Council of America. "Infant formulas are the most highly regulated food and must meet rigorous safety and quality standards set by regulatory authorities."
You won't see the amount of sugar listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel of formula as you would for other foods and drinks. According to the FDA, infant formula has its own labeling requirements. Manufacturers must declare the total carbohydrates on the panel and list them out in the ingredient list, but they do not break out "sugar". And remember that sugars are used in formula as a source of carbohydrate and nutrition.
So what does all of this mean when you're shopping for formula? If you're starting from scratch, Young advises trying to find a formula that primarily uses lactose (it will be listed high on the ingredient list), unless you need a lactose-reduced formula. When possible, avoid a formula that uses sucrose, the sweetest simple carb, as the main carbohydrate, so your baby doesn't develop a high preference for very sweet flavors. Sucrose is actually not permitted in baby formula in the EU, except in small amounts in hydrolyzed-protein formulas. Lactose is the least sweet carb in the bunch.
If your baby is already on a formula that does have sucrose and is doing well, leave it be, says Young. "If your baby is thriving, then you've found the perfect formula for him or her," she says. Swapping formulas can be hard on babies. And remember that breast milk is sweet too, so both breastfed and formula-fed babies are being exposed to sweet flavors from the start.
Keep in mind that corn syrup used in baby formula is not the same thing as high fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup breaks down into glucose, while HFCS breaks down into glucose and fructose (and it's the fructose that has triggered concerns about HFCS).
If you're concerned about your baby's formula or have questions about the ingredients, talk to your baby's pediatrician or dietitian.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.