Ready to learn about organic vs non organic formula? Trying to figure out how on earth to choose the best organic formula for your baby? I’m here to help!
Because I know that you formula feeding and supplementing mamas need support too! And what’s more, picking a dang formula can be a seriously overwhelming process!
Here we’re going to unpack organic vs. non organic, but also learn about why the source of different nutrients matter, too. You’ll also get a bit of a primer on European formulas and what the hype is all about.
Ready? Let’s get you on your way to picking the right formula for your baby!
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My experience with formula feeding
If you’ve spent any time around Mommy Labor Nurse, you know that I am a big breastfeeding advocate, and I love to provide expecting and new mamas with support in making breastfeeding work if that’s important to them!
BUT did you know that I’m equally as passionate about the fed is best movement? I know how challenging breastfeeding can be, and I’m on a mission to denounce the guilt and negative narrative that often comes with the decision to formula feed (or even supplement!).
With my first, I struggled hard with low supply and my little one had issues gaining weight. I felt so much mom guilt when I started supplementing with formula. AND I DON’T WANT THAT FOR YOU.
What’s more, it’s so dang hard to find succinct and reliable information about how to formula feed properly and (the topic of this article!) how to choose a formula!
Baby formula requirements: An overview
Okay, when it comes to selecting a formula, a common question a lot of mamas face is organic vs non organic formula. I think a lot of us associate “organic” with being better, and (real talk) being more expensive.
So, let’s start by talking about formula in general. All formula sold here in the US is subject to very strict nutritional standards. In fact, when Mallory from The Formula Mom came onto my podcast, she explained that formula is the single most strictly regulated food product that you can buy.
Nothing goes through more safety testing, nutrient testing, packaging testing, etc. than baby formula (organic or non organic!)
Formula is VERY carefully regulated
That’s because it’s subject to FDA regulations. It’s basically treated like a medical product – and for good reason! And this fact alone should seriously put your mind at ease. What’s more, formula is also one of the most nutrient-dense items you can buy. It’s designed to closely mimic the nutritional profile of breastmilk.
Pay attention to nutrient sources as much as organic vs non organic formula
Where formulas DO differ is just how they get the breastmilk-like nutrient profile. The composition can vary widely, and this is what we’ll dive into a little more today.
In fact, some experts actually say it may be more (or at least equally) important to look at what ingredients are being used to meet nutritional requirements (more on this below) than whether they are organic or not (source).
Baby formula ingredients
So, all baby formulas in the US are required to meet federal nutritional requirements. According to the FDA, this includes minimum amounts of 29 ingredients and maximum amounts for 9 of those nutrients.
Because of this, when you look at the nutrition facts on the back of any container of formula, it’s going to basically look the same! It’s the ingredients that carry difference, and can disclose the information that’s worth digging into as you learn more about formulas, and how to choose the best baby formula for your family.
So let’s take a look at some of the types of ingredients and why their source matters!
Sweeteners used in baby formula
The number one goal of formula is to mimic the nutritional profile of breast milk as closely as possible. And the fact is, breastmilk is sweet. And this is because it contains much more lactose than cow’s milk. So, all formulas (even those made with cow’s milk, which has some lactose) have to add in more sweetener.
In fact, the source of carbohydrate is usually the very first ingredient listed for formulas, so it’s easy to figure out how this particular formula is being sweetened!
Lactose is best (when safe for baby!)
The best option is lactose! That’s because it is the most similar to human milk. Lactose is literally milk sugar! Formula regulations in the EU state that any cow’s milk formula with in-tact proteins (that is all formulas that aren’t hypoallergenic) can ONLY use lactose. No other sweeteners are permitted!
And for formulas that are hypoallergenic, they say that sucrose cannot make up more than 20% of the formula. There are no such regulations on US formulas (and in some cases other forms of sweeteners make up 50% of the formula!).
Why don’t they all use lactose?
So why do companies use other sweeteners if their less desirable? Lactose is an expensive ingredient. Especially organically sourced lactose. Expensive for the manufacturer, and in turn, more expensive for the consumer.
So, in order to cut production costs, formula manufacturers have turned to other sources of carbohydrates. Again, especially in organic formulas.
Other sweeteners that formula companies use
- Corn Syrup (glucose; maltodextrin): This is considered less desirable than lactose but should NOT be confused with high fructose corn syrup. In short, corn syrup is considered safe by the FDA for use in infant formulas and is the preferred sweetener in EU-based hypoallergenic formulas. If your baby has a serious cow’s milk protein allergy, and reacts to any amount of lactose, corn syrup is the most desirable alternative
- Rice Syrup: Rice syrup is a less common formula-sweetener in the US, but is found in some organic formulas. The concern here is that some rice syrups have high concentrations of arsenic. Nature’s One is a popular organic formula brand that uses rice syrup, and they state that they rigorously check for detectable levels of arsenic in their product.
- Sucrose (cane sugar): This is your basic table sugar, and is another sweetener we sometimes see in organic formulas especially. The issue here is that this carbohydrate source is just WAY WAY sweeter than breast milk or lactose.
Palm Oil (palm olein) in baby formula
All baby formulas have a fat source in their ingredients. And this is because breastmilk is chock full of fat! The fat found in human milk is called palmitic acid. But this is NOT the same as palm oil – which is found in many baby formulas.
You see the concern surrounding the use of palm oil is that more and more studies are finding that it can lead to constipation and causes some babies to poorly absorb fat and calcium which in turn means less energy is absorbed. It may also lead to lower bone density (source).
A note about Baby’s Only formula
Note: Baby’s Only formulas have been mentioned a few times, and while they are pretty awesome in terms of ingredients, they are not FDA approved for use in babies under one and are labeled a “toddler formula”.
They are specially designed for babies that are transitioning away from breastmilk. Some parents do you use it prior to one (especially if you are supplementing breast milk) but this should not be done without supervision of your pediatrician.
DHA and ARA
DHA is an omega 3 fatty acid and ARA is an Omega 6 fatty acid; both of which are found in human milk and are key parts of brain development. So, synthetic versions of these are often added to formula.
These are not a required nutrient here in the US, but in 2020 the EU started requiring the addition of DHA to regulated formulas over there.
The AAP doesn’t have an official stance on the use of DHA in infant formula, and right not there isn’t a lot of definitive research on their benefits, but there also aren’t a lot of drawbacks.
Good news – they’re very common
Very Well Family cites one study from 2014 that found babies who received formula containing DHA and ARA may have fewer instances of respiratory illness.
The bottom line is that there is some uncertaintly here, but MOST formulas are adding it anyway, so it’s not very hard to find an option that contain DHA and ARA.
This is added to some ready-to-go formulas, same little bottles they give you in the hospital. It is only added so you don’t have to shake the bottle of formula.
The issues with carrageenan is that it is linked to gut issues and intestinal inflammation in animal studies (source).
So, the FDA requires 29 essential nutrients, but some of these can only be created synthetically (source). These include lycopene, lutein, taurine, and L-Carnitine.
Getting into these is a little bit outside of the scope of my expertise (and this article), but it’s worthy to note that many of these ingredients are banned in European formulas.
Organic vs non organic formula
Okay. Now that you kind of have an idea of different sources to be aware of for required nutrients, let’s look more specifically at organic vs non organic formula. This is another regulation that is put in place by the FDA and carries real weight.
In order for a baby formula to be labeled USDA organic, it must meet the same criteria as any other item bearing this label in the US. These criteria are regulated by the US department of agriculture (not the FDA). Here’s a quick breakdown of the requirements for food (or formula!) to have an organic label:
- GMO-free: the formula cannot contain any genetically modified ingredients
- Milk must be sourced from cow’s (or goats!) that are fed organic feed and not given any growth hormones
- Crops, where ingredients are sourced, cannot be treated with pesticides or chemicals
- In other words: all agricultural ingredients must be certified organic
- Certain approved non-organic ingredients are permitted but can only make up a total of 5% of the content
For more details on this, here is information from the USDA on organic labeling and The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
Is organic formula better?
The big point I’ve wanted to drive home so far is that in a lot of ways, the source of the nutrient is so important (especially when it comes to sweeteners and fats), but for many us, organic ingredients are also very important.
When you choose a formula that’s certified organic you do drastically decrease your child’s potential exposure to harmful chemicals, toxins, and hormone disruptors that may be present in conventional ingredients. These types of toxins are found in pesticides, feed, and production of the ingredients used in conventional formula.
But it may not be in your budget – and that’s okay!
But mama, I get it! I know that organic formula often comes with a steeper price tag and may not be a reality for your family. AND THAT’S OKAY. My goal is NEVER to leave you feeling guilty, but instead to educate. Below we’ll look at some options at different price points.
For many, the option to feed our children (and selves) organic for the whole life simply isn’t in the budget. But, prioritizing an organic option very early in their life may be beneficial to their developing immune systems, brain, and endocrine functions (source).
Non-GMO formula vs regular formula
So, this is a specific question that comes up a lot, and while I pretty much answered it above. I wanted to put it in plainer terms.
If a non-GMO formula is a priority for you, then you need to choose an organic formula! The USDA organic certification guarantees against the use of genetically modified ingredients in baby formula.
You may see some non-organic formulas that are labeled “non-GMO” but this label is actually not federally regulated (source)! There are some independent organizations, including the non-GMO project, that offer rigorous standards for their non-GMO label, which is great.
But I do think it’s important for parents to know that the only formulas that are federally regulated to be non-GMO are organic options.
While we’re on the topic of labeling, here are a few other labels that are NOT federally regulated, certified, or tested:
- Raised without antibiotics
- Non-GMO (already discussed)
- All natural
- Free range
Again, some of these are encompassed in an organic certification, but on their own these labels are not tested for or certified. While it’s entirely possible that the company is telling the truth, there is no third-party verification.
You can read more about labeling regulations in general (which also apply to formula!) here.
What about European baby formula?
Some of you may be wondering about European baby formula. This often becomes part of the conversation because the EU has much stricter regulations on formula in general than we do here in the US.
Perhaps most notably, surrounding the type of carbohydrate (sweetener) that can be used. European formulas cannot use sucrose (table sugar), glucose, fructose, rice syrup, or carrageenan.
For this reason, and for mamas where ingredient sourcing and safety is a top priority, going with a European option is appealing.
In fact, in 2020, they made more official changes to their nutrient requirements including a slight increase in the amount of Vitamin D and choline, and that ALL infant formulas must contain DHA!
US experts concern with EU formulas
And while a lot of that is really good, some experts here in the US do see potential issues with using European formulas. Many believe that they don’t require an adequate amount of iron.
There is also a lack of education among some US parents about the different stages of EU formulas which can lead to nutritional deficiencies if parents don’t switch stages as their baby grows.
Lastly, sometimes instructions may be in another language leading to unintended misuse (source).
How to choose the best baby formula?
When it comes to choosing the best baby formula, I like how Mallory (The Formula Mom) put it when she was on my podcast, there is no one best formula for every baby or family! There are so many different options out there, and that’s because we all have different priorities and needs.
It’s also really normal for there to be some amount of trial and error where you watch for how baby reacts and how it’s working for your family.
Per @theformulamom, here are some things to consider when choosing the right formula include:
- Baby’s needs (ie: allergies, intolerances, etc.)
- Family’s needs (ready-made, availability, budget)
- Organic vs. Non Organic
- Ingredient preferences
- Pediatrician guidance and recommendations
To find the best baby formula, you really need to weigh ALL of those factors to come to a decision that works best.
Which is the best organic baby formula?
The short answer is that I can’t choose that for you! For my family, an organic option felt important, and after some trial and error I landed on Earth’s Best for my first. We had no issues and all-around really liked it!
Other popular organic baby formulas
- Happy Baby Organic Formula
- Similac Organic
- HiPP Formula (EU-based)
- Holle Formula (EU-based)
- Baby’s Only (for those over 1 year old, or for those supplementing breastmilk under the guidance of a pediatrician)
Above all, I encourage you to consider YOUR family and your baby’s needs! I highly, highly recommend checking out the resources on formula over at The Formula Mom to help with this.
She has a free guide to formulas in general, and then also offers personalized recommendations and one-on-one counseling to find the perfect and best formula (organic or not!) for your family.
The bottom line is that there is no one size fits all. Whether that’s an organic formula or not!
What do YOU think is the best organic baby formula? Or what formula did you decide on for your baby? I’d love to hear!