A well-fed baby is a healthy baby is a happy baby. How you choose to feed your infant is a personal decision. But if you’ve decided to feed your baby formula, you’re likely on a quest to find the best baby formula. Maybe you’re exploring organic baby formula, which, in our label-obsessed times, sounds so much more appealing and wholesome. And most likely you’re wading through the masses of baby formula brands out there, an assortment so mind-boggling, filled with so many parental and nutritional buzzwords, that you’re reeling.
So here’s the good news, dear parents: Formula is tightly regulated, and thus, the differences are not weighty.
“All of the formulas that are reviewed by the FDA have to have certain ingredients,” says Dr. Steven Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the committee on nutrition of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s actually mandated by a law, called the Infant Formula Act. It’s one of the very few foods that’s mandated by an actual law that says what has to be in it.”
Now, if your child is lactose-intolerant, that’s a whole different story, but for babies who can tolerate cow’s milk, you can pick any brand sold in the United States that you trust and just feed your child.
“Companies have created versions of their products with DHA and probiotics and these extra additives, which then allow them to make claims like: Good for brain development or eye health,” says Jennifer Harris, a researcher at the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy who studies the marketing of formula for a living.
“These are considered structure/function claims, which means it’s a claim that links an ingredient to body function and does not require scientific evidence. If it’s a health claim that attaches a benefit to a health outcome, it would require scientific evidence,” says Harris.
Her advice is that assuming your child has no food allergies or other issues, you don’t have to sweat the choice too much. “The basic formula will have everything your baby needs to be healthy and grow.”
That said, many parents want to know more. Or maybe you still have questions. Here’s everything you need to know.
Baby Formula FAQs
Is baby formula regulated in this country?
It very much is. The FDA regulates commercial infant formulas to make sure they meet nutritional and safety requirements. Most infant formulas sold in this country are also fortified with iron.
What is the difference between baby formula brands?
Because formula is, thankfully, so tightly regulated, each one contains a very similar combination of protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins, and minerals, which closely mimic that of human breast milk.
That being said, there are some differences, says Dr. Anthony Porto, an associate professor of pediatrics at Yale University and the medical director of ambulatory operations at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital.
Protein differences include percentages of whey vs casein in cow’s milk based formulas as well as how much the protein is broken down: Partially hydrolyzed (gentle formulas), extensively hydrolyzed and amino acid based formulas. The latter two are used in treating infants with cow’s milk protein allergy,” says Porto. “In addition, the carbohydrate source also varies. Most have lactose (like breast milk) while other formulas (gentle, sensitive, Added Rice) are low lactose or lactose-free and contain other sources of carbohydrates including corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, and starch or a combination.”
What is the best baby formula?
Guess what? There isn’t one. Experts say to find one that works best for your baby, and stick with it. “Choose what is best for you and your child, based on what your child needs and will drink as well as other factors including cost,” says Porto.
What is the best organic baby formula?
Sorry to burst your bubble, but per the American Academy of Pediatrics, “there is currently no research indicating there is a clinical or nutritional difference between organic and conventional milk. Both formulas have the same protein, vitamins, fats, and nutrients,” says Porto.
“There is also no evidence that formula made from conventional milk contains any clinically relevant bovine growth hormone. In addition, there is no current research on the benefits or improved health outcomes of infants fed grass fed, non-GMO or organic formulas,” he says.
The takeaway: If you feel better feeding your baby organic formula, go forth and buy it. Otherwise, save your dollars.
Is there a difference between powder formula and liquid formula?
Nope. “Not much of a difference except possibly convenience and cost,” says Porto.
So wait, we’ve heard about imported European baby formula. Should we use that?
“European formulas are organic and typically grass-fed, contain less iron, contain higher levels of DHA than the majority of US formulas. They are safe to use in the country of origin but there are risks in purchasing these formulas,” says Porto.
What risks, you might wonder? Some fairly obvious ones. The majority of European formula you can buy here is sold through third-party vendors, so you can’t be sure how the formula was handled or stored. If the formula is recalled, you won’t know about it.
Plus, adds Porto, “Scoop sizes vary and mixing instructions vary from most U.S. FDA infant formulas, which may lead to under- or over-mixing.” And that is dangerous for infants.
What else should I know about baby milk formula?
“Use only infant formula that is FDA registered. Regulations are put in place to ensure infant formula safety, and formula safety, which can’t be guaranteed if it is purchased illegally through third party vendors,” says Porto.
Baby Formulas New Parents Should Consider
The formulas below, listed alphabetically, reflect a diverse array of what parents with different financial and nutritional needs might be looking for. While they aren’t explicitly endorsed by any of our experts, they do reflect their guidance and, crucially, all have all been reviewed by the FDA.
Enfamil PurAmino Hypoallergenic
If your pediatrician says you should use a hypoallergenic formula, this one from Enfamil might be a good option. This one has two amino acids—the building blocks of protein—that were been proven to be hypoallergenic in a peer-reviewed study.
Enfamil Enspire is the only formula in the U.S. with a blend of MFGM and lactoferrin, ingredients that some evidence suggests could support cognitive development and digestive issues, respectively.
Gerber Good Start Extensive HA Powder Infant Formula
As mentioned above, only babies will real health conditions need specialized formulas. Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy, which a pediatrician can diagnose, is one of those conditions. This formula, which has “extensively hydrolyzed 100-percent whey protein” and is lactose-free, is a good bet.
Gerber Good Start SoothePro
There is also some evidence the probiotics like the L. reuteri in this formula might help babies’ digestive systems function, which could mean fewer crying fits.
Kirkland Signature ProCare Non-GMO Infant Formula (42-oz. 4-pack)
The Costco brand standard formula is always available in bulk, and on a per fluid ounce basis it’s once of the lowest priced baby formulas on the market.
Parent’s Choice Tender Non-GMO Infant Formula
Partially hydrolyzed milk proteins are among the ingredients in this non-GMO “gentle” formula, available exclusively at Wal-Mart.
There is some evidence that formulas with prebiotics, like this one from Similac, can provide some of the immune-boosting properties associated with breastmilk.
Similac Organic Infant Formula with Iron
Parents who eat organic themselves might prefer that their infant does too. For them, a USDA-certified organic formula like Similac Organic is one to consider.