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How To Find the Safest Organic Infant Formula

I am honored to share this guest post by Charlotte Vallaeys, former of Director of Farm and Food Policy at the Cornucopia Institute and now a Senior Analyst within the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Program at Consumers Union. This is the truth about organic infant formulas that currently exist on the market today and something that needs to be read by every mother-to-be, mothers and fathers everywhere. Unfortunately, choosing an infant formula that is organic is not enough – you must look deeper and understand the ingredients manufacturers are using in their products. Charlotte shares the exact ingredients you need to look out for and how to find the safest organic infant formula available. She holds Masters degrees from Harvard University and Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition. 


Some of my favorite memories of my sons as babies (which was not that long ago—they are 2 and 4 years old) involve breastfeeding.  It is a truly magical and priceless bonding experience.  And for someone who loves good, “real” food as much as I do, there could be nothing more satisfying and empowering than that tingling feeling that accompanies the milk ducts springing into action to produce fresh milk, full of just the right mix of enzymes, nutrients, antibodies, hormones, and other beneficial components that have yet to be discovered—the product of millions of years of evolution, specially made for my baby to ensure he’ll grow and thrive.

But we also faced many obstacles along the way.  The challenges started in the hospital with my firstborn and continued up to the moment my lastborn sipped his last drop of human milk.

My oldest, Liam, would not latch on at first.  I had expected breastfeeding to be easy—it was, after all, so “natural”—but there I was, a brand new mom with an hours-old baby, struggling to get my newborn to latch on.  Those first hours of motherhood ushered in the realization that, in parenthood, not everything will go as planned.

After involving many contraptions, including a hospital-grade breast pump, specialized bottles, and a silicone “nipple shield,” and many different nurses’ and lactation consultants’ advice (not to mention a lot of maternal determination), we finally—after a couple of days—made it work.

When Liam was 9 weeks old, I discovered blood in his diaper and disregarded our pediatrician’s advice to switch from breastfeeding to hypoallergenic formula (she claimed he was allergic to milk, including his mother’s milk).  Instead, I continued breastfeeding but cut all dairy and soy out of my diet until Liam’s first birthday.

Among other challenges, we weathered two bouts of painful mastitis and many days of separation for work-related trips that required a freezer full of pumped milk.

The challenges continued until the very end, and unfortunately, my final memories of breastfeeding are also the most painful.  When he was 9 months, my second son, Kai, decided to wean on his own.  I had heard about “self-weaning,” and until I was faced with an uninterested and stubborn infant, I thought it was just a clever excuse for mothers to switch to more convenient formula feeding.  Again, it was a stark reminder that many things about parenthood are easier said than done, and so much of what happens on this journey is entirely out of our control.

I suppose I was more stubborn than Kai, and he eventually became hungry and thirsty enough that he would feed.  But he responded by reluctantly drinking and then ending the session with a bite.  After a couple of weeks of very tense—and often painful—feeding sessions, I switched to pumping and giving my milk to Kai from a bottle.  I grimaced every time I saw him bite down on that rubber nipple.  Eventually, after a couple more weeks, I produced no more milk, and that bottle needed something in it for the remaining weeks until we could switch to organic whole milk.

All this baby-feeding drama happened while I worked as a researcher and policy analyst with The Cornucopia Institute.  Cornucopia acts as a watchdog for the organic community.  As I carefully read labels in the baby food aisle of my local food store, I couldn’t help but notice numerous violations of the organic standards.  I avoided these baby foods with multiple unapproved synthetic ingredients.  Meanwhile, Cornucopia took a leading role in advocating for the removal of unnecessary or potentially harmful synthetics from organic formula and baby food.

This blog post is for parents, grandparents and others who want more information on organic infant formula.  I’d like to share what I learned both as Policy Director at Cornucopia and as a mom looking for the best food for my own babies.

Without a doubt, human milk and factory-produced infant formula don’t compare, as human milk is far superior in so many respects, including in ways we will probably never fully comprehend.  We can all agree on that.  But in parenthood, many things don’t go as planned, and for many committed, food-conscious, organic-buying parents, that includes breastfeeding.

I will only cover organic formula, and I hope that readers will understand that while there are many problems in this segment of the organic industry, organic formula is still a far better choice than conventional formula, with its genetically engineered ingredients (GMOs), milk from cows that were likely treated with antibiotics or artificial growth hormones, and oils that were processed with the use of neurotoxic solvents like hexane.  Major ingredients in conventional formula are derived from crops that were sprayed with harmful pesticides and herbicides in the field and likely fumigated in storage.

Organic formula offers an alternative, but it is far from perfect.  I hope that parents will find the information here useful if faced with the tough decision to turn to formula.

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The Organic Formula Industry

If you need formula and can’t make your own, you likely want to know how to purchase the best one.

While there are seven brands of organic infant formula currently available on market shelves, there are only three companies that make organic infant formula in the United States.

One manufacturer is PBM Nutritionals, owned by Perrigo.  At $3 billion in annual sales, Perrigo is the world’s largest manufacturer of private label (store-brand) over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.  PBM primarily produces conventional formula, but makes organic formula for its own Vermont Organics and Bright Beginnings brands.  It also manufacturers organic formula for Hain Celestial’s Earth’s Best brand, Whole Foods Market’s 365 Organic brand, and Walmart’s Parent’s Choice brand.

Similac Organic is manufactured by Abbott Laboratories.  Abbott, a major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals in the U.S., introduced Similac Organic in 2006.  By 2007, its first full year on sale, Similac Organic captured 36% of the organic formula market.  Abbott’s Similac is a market leader in conventional formula.

Finally, Baby’s Only Organic is developed and marketed by Nature’s One.  Nature’s One markets Baby’s Only Organic formula as a “toddler formula” rather than an infant formula (according to the company, this is done to encourage breastfeeding until age 1).  Its products meet the same nutritional standards that the FDA sets forth for infant formula.  Nature’s One is the only company marketing organic formula that is not a publicly traded corporation; the business is family-owned and operated.

Top five ingredients to take a close look at  – how do organic brands compare?

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1. Sweeteners: corn syrup, sugar, or brown rice syrup

Formula manufacturers strive to formulate a product that mirrors the nutritional profile of human milk.  Human milk contains higher levels of lactose, a carbohydrate, than cow milk, which means that formula manufacturers must make up the difference by adding a sweetener to cow milk-based formula.

But in their choice of sweetener, it appears that concerns over the availability and price of the various sources have taken precedence.  The sweetener that most closely mimics human milk would be lactose (the naturally occurring carbohydrate in any mammal’s milk).  But lactose is also the most expensive, and manufacturers have, over the years, switched from this milk-based sweetener to plant-based sweeteners.

Corn syrup

When PBM Nutritionals first rolled out its organic infant formula under the Bright Beginnings brand name, it contained only organic lactose, with no corn-based sweeteners.  PBM soon produced the same product for Walmart, under the Parent’s Choice brand name, which also contained only organic lactose.

But PBM Nutritionals switched from organic lactose as the sole sweetener for Bright Beginnings, and so did Walmart’s organic formula, in 2010.  Their formulations changed to include both ‘organic corn syrup solids’ and lactose.

By 2011, organic lactose in Bright Beginnings and Parent’s Choice had disappeared altogether, replaced by organic maltodextrin, another plant-based sweetener. Maltodextrins are partially hydrolyzed starch molecules, which can be derived from corn, rice or potatoes.  Maltodextrin is less sweet than corn syrup.

Today, Bright Beginnings, Parent’s Choice and Whole Foods’ 365 Organic contain no organic lactose at all—only plant-based (mostly corn-based) carbohydrates.

A similar move away from organic lactose happened with Earth’s Best and Vermont Organics (again, both manufactured by PBM).  In 2007, Earth’s Best infant formula contained only organic lactose as the added carbohydrate.  When Vermont Organics entered the market in 2008, it mirrored Earth’s Best and also contained only organic lactose.  By 2011, both Earth’s Best and Vermont Organics contained reduced amounts of organic lactose, which were replaced with ‘organic glucose syrup solids.’

‘Organic glucose syrup solids’ is another name for ‘organic corn syrup solids,’ which are partially hydrolyzed corn starch molecules that are dried to a low moisture powder (hence the name ‘solids’).  Corn syrup solids are moderately sweet (sweeter than maltodextrin).

Brand Company Manufacturer Carbohydrate in 2013
365 (Whole Foods) Organic Whole Foods Markets, Inc. PBM Nutritionals Organic Glucose Syrup Solids, Organic Maltodextrin
Baby’s Only Organic® Nature’s One Nature’s One Organic Brown Rice Syrup
Bright Beginnings® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals Organic Glucose Syrup Solids, Organic Maltodextrin
Earth’s Best® The Hain Celestial Group PBM Nutritionals Organic Lactose, Organic Glucose Syrup Solids
Parent’s Choice® Organic Wal-Mart PBM Nutritionals Organic Glucose Syrup Solids, Organic Maltodextrin
Similac® Organic Abbott Laboratories Abbott Laboratories Organic Maltodextrin, Organic Sugar
Vermont Organics® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals Organic Lactose, Organic Glucose Syrup Solids

Sugar

In terms of the added sweetener, Abbott Laboratories took a different route for its Similac Organic product: sugar.

Abbott’s decision came under fire in 2008, when The New York Times reported on the various concerns regarding the use of sugar in infant formula.  The Times even commissioned its own professional taste test.  Similac Organic was the sweetest, “with the sweetness of grape juice or Country Time lemonade,” according to Gail Civille, the director of Sensory Spectrum, which performed the tests.

The European Union banned sugar-sweetened infant formula in 2009, due to concerns with rising rates of childhood obesity and the possibility that overly sweet formula might lead to overfeeding.  Sucrose (sugar) is allowed only in special formula for babies with allergies, and even then, it may not exceed 20% of the total carbohydrate content.

The New York Times quoted Dr. Benjamin Caballero, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and an expert in risk factors for childhood obesity: “I would be very concerned about this as a pediatrician.  The issue is that sweet tastes tend to encourage consumption of excessive amounts.”  Evidence shows that babies and children will always show a preference for the sweetest food available, he said, and they will eat more of it than they would of less-sweet food.  “This is how breakfast cereal manufacturers compete,” he added.

Despite the concerns raised in The New York Times, Abbott Laboratories continues to use sugar as the added carbohydrate.

Brown Rice Syrup

Nature’s One chose organic brown rice syrup as the added carbohydrate for its toddler formula.  In 2012, researchers at Dartmouth University tested various foods for levels of arsenic, and found organic toddler formula made with organic brown rice syrup contained up to six times the U.S. EPA safe drinking water limit for inorganic arsenic (there are no established safety standards for arsenic in food, including infant formula).

In response, Nature’s One developed an organic-compliant technology to filter and remove inorganic arsenic from its organic brown rice syrup to undetectable levels.

Consumers Union tested Baby’s Only Organic products to determine if the company had indeed removed arsenic from its products, and confirmed Nature’s One’s claims that its formula now contains undetectable arsenic levels

2.  Palm Oil: Forms “Soaps” In The Baby’s Gut

Not all oil is created equal—it’s a basic fact of nutrition science, and one that is especially important for infants.  Human milk is naturally high in certain types of fatty acids, which formula manufacturers try to mimic by adding certain types of oil.  And to mirror the levels of palmitic acid, a fatty acid found in human milk, some manufacturers add palm oil.

However, palmitic acid from palm oil is structurally different from palmitic acid in human milk, and research has shown that human infants do not properly absorb it.

The unabsorbed palmitic acid remaining in the infant’s gut reacts with calcium, and causes the formation of “soaps” in the baby’s intestines.  This important finding has been reported on more than one occasion in the journal Pediatrics, of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Research suggests that the formation of “soaps” in the baby’s intestinal tract negatively affects a baby’s development and health.  Since palmitic acid from palm oil is not absorbed properly, it means overall fat absorption is lower in babies given formula with palm oil.  Bone mass is significantly lower in babies given formula containing palm oil, perhaps because the calcium in the baby’s intestines turns into “soap” rather than reaching the baby’s growing bones.  And the “soapiness” in the intestines also leads to hard stools.

According to researchers at Wayne State University, who performed a comprehensive review of published studies on the effects of palm oil in infant formula:

The use of palm oil in infant formulas to match the human milk content of palmitic acid has unintended physiological consequences.  The avoidance of palm oil … in infant formulas can prevent this detrimental effect.

Despite these concerns, all organic formula products coming out of the PBM Nutritionals factory continue to contain palm oil.  Earth’s Best did not contain palm oil when it first came on the market, but switched to palm oil in 2007.

Brand Company Manufacturer Contains Palm Oil?
365 (Whole Foods) Organic Whole Foods Markets, Inc. PBM Nutritionals Yes
Baby’s Only Organic® Nature’s One Nature’s One No
Bright Beginnings® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals Yes
Earth’s Best® The Hain Celestial Group PBM Nutritionals Yes
Parent’s Choice® Organic Wal-Mart PBM Nutritionals Yes
Similac® Organic Abbott Laboratories Abbott Laboratories No
Vermont Organics® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals Yes

(As if parents needed another reason to avoid Enfamil, which offers no organic option, the first oil listed in Enfamil is palm oil).   

3.  Ingredients extracted with neurotoxic solvents from algae and soil fungus—not exactly the way mom makes it – C. Cohnii oil (DHA) and M. Alpina oil (ARA):

Six years ago, Cornucopia’s codirectors asked me to look into two ingredients, C. Cohnii oil and M. Alpina oil.   They are marketed as “DHA and ARA,” and were starting to appear in organic infant formula without having gone through the proper approval process required by federal organic law.

The oils were manufactured by a biotechnology corporation in Maryland (the company has since been bought by the Dutch multinational corporation Royal DSM), using processing aids and synthetic ingredients that are not approved for use in organics.

Fresh out of a graduate program in nutrition, I could not help but dig deeper.  I have to admit: I didn’t want to be involved in filing a legal complaint against ingredients that might be beneficial to infant development.  I was concerned we might be depriving infants if we actually succeeded in having the USDA pull these ingredients out of organic infant formula (I clearly underestimated the power of the infant formula lobby that we’d be up against).

I soon discovered from the scientific literature that we wouldn’t be harming babies at all if they didn’t have these additives in their formula.  If fact, we’d be protecting them from potential harm.  Studies repeatedly failed to show benefits from adding these additives to formula, and the FDA had been receiving dozens of reports from parents and pediatricians who noticed some babies do not tolerate these ingredients.  In 2008, we filed a legal complaint.

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid, and ARA is an omega-6 fatty acid.  Both are naturally found in human milk, and DHA is a component of brain and eye tissue.  But the DHA and ARA added to most brands of infant formula are extracted from factory-produced C. Cohnii and M. Alpina—specific strains of algae and fungus that have never been part of the human diet, let alone the diet of infants.

Since we released our report and filed the legal complaint, it has become even clearer that these additives are not necessary and are primarily added as marketing tools.  Three of the most prominent and respected independent scientists in the field of infant formula science stated in 2010 that the scientific evidence base for DHA and ARA’s addition to infant formula is “recognized by most investigators and Key Opinion Leaders in the field to be weak,” and that “this field of research has been driven to an extent by enthusiasm and vested interest.

Several comprehensive reviews of all published research have been conducted since we released our report, and all conclude that DHA and ARA “had no proven benefit regarding vision, cognition, or physical growth.”  The World Health Organization’s Director of Nutrition for Health and Development even wrote a letter in 2011 to members of the European parliament, letting them know that “as to date no solid evidence exists to be able to say that adding DHA to infant formula will have important clinical benefits.”

When an Associated Press reporter asked the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on nutrition, Dr. Frank Greer, to comment on DHA and ARA in infant formula, he said: “The truth of the matter is, they’re not essential. Humans can synthesize these. Fatty acids are naturally present in the diet. And the whole issue becomes, do you make really make people smarter if you put DHA and ARA in everything? Or is this just all marketing hype? Personally, I lean toward the latter.”

When the C. Cohnii and M. Alpina oils first appeared in infant formula, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received dozens of reports from physicians and parents who noticed diarrhea, vomiting, and other gastrointestinal distress in infants given formula with these oils—symptoms that disappeared when the infant was switched to the exact same formula without these novel additives.

The FDA reports that no post-market surveillance has taken place to assure the safety and tolerance of these additives—despite the FDA’s clear request to the formula manufacturers to conduct rigorous post-market monitoring to ensure their safety.

Another concern with these additives is how they are produced: the oil is extracted from the algae and fungus with the use of hexane, a neurotoxic petroleum-based solvent.

When the USDA received legal complaints against the unapproved use of C. Cohnii and M. Alpina oils, a Washington lobbyist with the powerful law firm of Covington and Burling convinced USDA officials to open a loophole in the organic standards, which would allow the formula manufacturers to add the unapproved ingredients without facing enforcement action.

While the USDA has since admitted that this was inappropriate, the agency has failed to take enforcement action and continues to bow to pressure from the infant formula industry.  The National Organic Standards Board even explicitly stated that hexane-extracted algal oil and fungal oil should not be allowed in organic foods— but the USDA has failed to act on this very clear and legally binding vote, and hexane-extracted DHA and ARA remains in organic infant formula.

The only company that adheres to the legal requirement that DHA and ARA oil must not be extracted with the use of the neurotoxic solvent hexane is Nature’s One, which has chosen a water-extracted source of DHA and ARA (derived from egg yolks) for its Baby’s Only Organic formula.

4. Carrageenan: Dangerous Inflammation In Your Baby’s Gut

If you search for “carrageenan” in a medical database, thousands of search results will appear.  Why so many?  Because carrageenan is used in animal experiments to predictably cause inflammation, which allows pharmaceutical scientists to test the effectiveness of new anti-inflammatory drugs.

In a report Cornucopia released earlier this year, we carefully analyzed the scientific literature on food-grade carrageenan, and found that scientists have raised concern about carrageenan’s safety for decades.  These concerns are based on their research linking the common food additive to gastrointestinal disease in laboratory animals, including colon tumors.

But the food industry, including the infant formula industry, has responded for decades by claiming that carrageenan is safe—based largely on industry-funded studies, with flawed methodologies.  When a Chicago Tribune reporter asked both the FDA and the carrageenan industry lobby group earlier this year to share studies that were not funded by the industry and that could indicate carrageenan is safe, they could not come up with a single one.

Carrageenan appears in some organic infant formula, even though the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to prohibit it.  The Secretary of Agriculture’s decision to disregard the NOSB’s decision shows the lobbying power and influence of the infant formula industry.

Carrageenan is prohibited in infant formula—conventional and organic—in the European Union.  The science linking carrageenan to intestinal inflammation is disturbing enough, but what adds insult to injury is that it is entirely unnecessary.  Carrageenan contributes no nutritional value or flavor to formula, or other food, but is added to stabilize ready-to-feed formula.  Adding carrageenan means parents or caregivers do not have to shake the product before feeding it to the baby.  The alternative is to put a “shake well” label on the bottle.

Earth’s Best and Similac Organic ready-to-feed formula, the only liquid organic formula on the market, both contain carrageenan.

5. Synthetic Preservatives and Nutrients In Organics: A Mirror-Image Of The Synthetics In Conventional Formula

Federal law requires that a synthetic ingredient cannot be added to organic products unless it has been reviewed and approved by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).  Two synthetic preservatives and numerous synthetic nutrients have recently been rejected by the NOSB.  Final rulemaking is pending.  For now, they remain in some organic infant formula products.

Some brands contain more of these unapproved synthetics than others.

Synthetic Preservatives

The NOSB rejected two synthetic preservatives: ascorbyl palmitate and beta-carotene. One of the primary reasons why formula manufacturers add these synthetic preservatives is to prevent the algal DHA and fungal ARA oils from going rancid. Since Baby’s Only Organic is the only formula that does not contain algal DHA oil and fungal ARA oil, it also is the only formula that does not contain these two synthetic preservatives.

Synthetic Nutrients

The National Organic Standards Board rejected the use of the following synthetic nutrients in dairy-based formula: lutein, lycopene, nucleotides, taurine, l-carnitine and l-methionine.

None of these nutrients are required in infant formula by the Food and Drug Administration, and all are prohibited in organic formula in the European Union.  Some, like lutein and lycopene, are even prohibited in conventional infant formula in the European Union.

Lutein is produced from conventionally grown marigolds—likely treated with insecticides—and processed with the neurotoxic solvent hexane.

Brand Company Manufacturer Contains Lutein?
365 (Whole Foods) Organic Whole Foods Market PBM Nutritionals No
Baby’s Only Organic® Nature’s One Nature’s One No
Bright Beginnings® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals No
Earth’s Best® The Hain Celestial Group PBM Nutritionals No
Parent’s Choice® Organic Wal-Mart PBM Nutritionals No
Similac® Organic Abbott Laboratories Abbott Laboratories Yes
Vermont Organics® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals No

Lycopene is most commonly found in tomatoes, but the version in organic infant formula is produced synthetically by the chemical manufacturer BASF.  A three-stage process is used to produce synthetic lycopene, and involves the solvent dichloromethane and the solvent toluene.  Toluene is a neurological toxin derived from benzene.

Brand Company Manufacturer Contains Lycopene?
365 (Whole Foods) Organic Whole Foods Market PBM Nutritionals No
Baby’s Only Organic® Nature’s One Nature’s One No
Bright Beginnings® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals No
Earth’s Best® The Hain Celestial Group PBM Nutritionals No
Parent’s Choice® Organic Wal-Mart PBM Nutritionals No
Similac® Organic Abbott Laboratories Abbott Laboratories Yes
Vermont Organics® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals No

Nucleotides are produced from hydrolyzed yeast.  The yeast undergoes multiple chemical changes in order to extract nucleotides, including heating to denature proteins, cell wall proteolysis, enzymatic hydrolysis, and dehydration.  The infant formula industry shared the identity of two suppliers of nucleotides for use in infant formula: one is a Chinese biotech company (Dalian Zhen-Ao Bio-Tech) and the other supplier is Japanese.

Brand Company Manufacturer Contains Nucleotides?
365 (Whole Foods) Organic Whole Foods Market PBM Nutritionals Yes
Baby’s Only Organic® Nature’s One Nature’s One Yes
Bright Beginnings® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals Yes
Earth’s Best® The Hain Celestial Group PBM Nutritionals Yes
Parent’s Choice® Organic Wal-Mart PBM Nutritionals Yes
Similac® Organic Abbott Laboratories Abbott Laboratories Yes
Vermont Organics® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals Yes

Taurine used in infant formula is produced synthetically; one processing method includes the use of sulfuric acid, a toxic and carcinogenic material, and another technique involves aziridine, listed as a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Brand Company Manufacturer Contains Taurine?
365 (Whole Foods) Organic Whole Foods Market PBM Nutritionals Yes
Baby’s Only Organic® Nature’s One Nature’s One Yes
Bright Beginnings® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals Yes
Earth’s Best® The Hain Celestial Group PBM Nutritionals Yes
Parent’s Choice® Organic Wal-Mart PBM Nutritionals Yes
Similac® Organic Abbott Laboratories Abbott Laboratories Yes
Vermont Organics® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals Yes

The production of synthetic l-Carnitine involves epichlorhydrin, a list 2B material (possible human carcinogen) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.  For this reason, it was rejected for use in organic foods by the National Organic Standards Board.

Brand Company Manufacturer Contains L-carnitine?
365 (Whole Foods) Organic Whole Foods Market PBM Nutritionals No
Baby’s Only Organic® Nature’s One Nature’s One No
Bright Beginnings® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals No
Earth’s Best® The Hain Celestial Group PBM Nutritionals No
Parent’s Choice® Organic Wal-Mart PBM Nutritionals No
Similac® Organic Abbott Laboratories Abbott Laboratories Yes
Vermont Organics® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals No

L-Methionine is required in soy-based infant formula to meet basic amino acid requirements.  Given its incompatibility with organic principles, synthetic l-methionine is prohibited in European organic foods.  For that reason, organic soy-based infant formula does not exist in Europe—another reason to avoid soy-based formula.

Soy-based formula is so nutritionally dissimilar from human milk that in some countries, like New Zealand, it is only available by prescription.  Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that soy-based formula provides an alternative to dairy-based formula only in very rare cases.

The synthetic version of l-methionine used in infant formula is produced with materials including acrolein, an EPA Hazardous Air Pollutant, and hydrogen cyanide, described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a “systemic chemical asphyxiant” and “chemical warfare agent,” “used commercially for fumigation, electroplating, mining, chemical synthesis, and the production of synthetic fibers, plastics, dyes, and pesticides.”

Brand Company Manufacturer Contains L-methionine?
365 (Whole Foods) Organic Whole Foods Market PBM Nutritionals No
Baby’s Only Organic® Nature’s One Nature’s One No
Bright Beginnings® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals No
Earth’s Best® The Hain Celestial Group PBM Nutritionals No
Parent’s Choice® Organic Wal-Mart PBM Nutritionals No
Similac® Organic Abbott Laboratories Abbott Laboratories Yes
Vermont Organics® PBM Nutritionals PBM Nutritionals No

What’s A Parent To Do?

Parents naturally assume that the organic label means all ingredients were carefully reviewed, deemed safe and compatible with organic principles (these are requirements in the organic law).  It is utterly disturbing that the infant formula and baby food aisle would contain some of the most egregious violations of the organic standards.

Even after the National Organic Standards Board voted to prohibit hexane-extracted DHA and ARA, carrageenan, two synthetic preservatives and six synthetic nutrients in organic infant formula, these unapproved ingredients remain in organic products on store shelves (lobbying efforts by the formula industry are apparently paying off).

Some parents make their own infant formula (Weston A. Price foundation has a recipe).  Human milk sharing is becoming more popular as well, with social media making it increasingly easy to connect donors and recipients (check out “Human Milk 4 Human Babies” and “Eats on Feets”).

Other parents import organic formula from Europe, such as the Holle brand from Germany, since it does not contain any of the unapproved synthetic preservatives and nutrients (Holle still does contain palm oil and maltodextrin).  In Europe, as in the U.S., these ingredients are prohibited, and manufacturers there follow the law.

Don’t babies in the U.S. deserve the same?  When will the USDA’s officials in charge of overseeing the organic label stop bowing to the lobbying pressure of the infant formula lobbyists, and enforce the organic law?

Please Take Action and Share This Post

Let the USDA know how you feel about their decision to continue allowing carrageenan in organic infant formula.  You have until June 3rd to submit a comment through the government’s portal (for the required field “organization,” enter “citizen”). While you’re sharing your thoughts on carrageenan, you can also urge the USDA to remove the other unapproved synthetic ingredients from organic infant formula.

Writing this post was not easy.  As a parent, I wish I could tell other parents who are in a bind and who need formula that the organic label signifies a safe option without any of the harmful ingredients found in conventional formula.  As this post has shown, that’s not always the case.

That being said, let me stress again that organic infant formula remains a safer and a far superior alternative to conventional formula.  Organic formula’s milk does not come from cows that were fed GMO feed, given antibiotics or injected with synthetic growth hormones.  Organic formula’s sweeteners and oils cannot be GMO, treated with pesticides or extracted with neurotoxic solvents.  So the choice between organic or conventional formula is a no-brainer.

Until we get unapproved ingredients out of organic infant formula, I hope this information will help parents make informed decisions when purchasing formula for their babies.


More about Charlotte Vallaeys:

Charlotte Vallaeys headshotFormer of Director of Farm and Food Policy at the Cornucopia Institute (when this post was written) and now a Senior Analyst within the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Program at Consumers Union.

With a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard University and a Master of Science degree from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Charlotte’s research explores the ethics of our food system. At The Cornucopia Institute, Charlotte has authored several reports on influential topics including questionable additives in infant formula, exposing improprieties in the organic egg industry and soy industry, and the meaning of different eco-labels. She is a nationally respected expert on the legal and regulatory oversight of the organic food industry.

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606 responses to “How To Find the Safest Organic Infant Formula

    1. I would go with Hipp. Best choice I ever made. My newborn developed horrible rash on Similac Alimentum which was supposed to be the formula for babies with allergies. I tried Gentlease too by Enfamil. Same thing happened he developed a rash. The doctor told us he is alergic to cow’s milk. When he developed the second rash on Alimentum he told us he is NOT allergic and because we have his a special formula with more broken down proteins he developed the rash. I was sick of it. They also told us my son had silent reflux and put him on Zantac. My mom secretly stopped giving him the medicine because he was a month old and no month old baby should be taking drugs. I ordered Hipp and it contains milk and smells very good like powdered milk and he loved it. He didn’t have reflux, no constipation, no rash. One happy baby and the poop looked like the poop when I breastfed the first 3 weeks. Sorry for the long reply but I was one frustrated first time mom and exhausted of seeing my baby suffer from the crap in American formula. Good luck.

      1. Help!
        We have a son who is 10 weeks old and he needs to be supplemented with additional formula due to my wife not having enough milk. After extensive research on baby formulas we found that in the US market the organic stuff is very questionable. My wife has ordered Holle bio 1 (organic) from Germany. After giving it to our baby, after couple of days we have observed a bit of a red rash on his cheeks. We stopped for three days until the rash was almost gone and then started to give him 4oz twice a day between breast feedings. This time the rash was more evident on his cheeks and other areas on his face. It looks like an allergy to a cow’s milk protein.
        Is there any ORGANIC formula designed for newborns with this type of allergy?
        Any thoughts? Thanks
        -Desperate and sleep deprived father

      2. If your kid has an allergy to cow’s milk try Kabrita on Amazon. It is GMO free goat. their standards are similar to organic but they haven’t got certifications yet.

      3. After a ton of research we decided on and love Holle – we’ve been buying from a great site who ships from the US… Biobaby24.

    2. Let me know if you find a good source to buy from here in the U.S.? I had a challenege with that. I ordered it from 4 different places (including Amazon) and only one of them came as promissed, the others took over a month. I found one U.S. website that sold it and it was out of stock. I got 10 big boxes in January which was supposed to last me for 3 months until my son turned 6 months, but he went through it in a month and half so I am out and I just placed another big order, but will take 2-3 weeks. That is the only problem, that you can’t find it quickly and conveniently in the U.S.

      My cousin lives in London and said they only let them buy up to 4 boxes at a time. I’ve never heard of that and no idea why, but the website I ordered from is in England .. they ship 2 boxes at a time, which may be how they get away with it.
      If you have a good source, please share. Thanks

      1. I got hipp and hole from ebay, all in good order
        there are few vendors on ebay, I got hole the next day in NYC from a vendor from NJ

      2. Thank you Aura! I ordered an emergency 2 boxes from eBay until my package arrives from England. The price is almost double on eBay but it works in cases like this. Thanks again !!

      3. Juliette,

        Can you please provide me the link to the website from where you ordered Hipp or Holle from UK?

        Thanks
        sukhanya

      1. Funny, you sound like you work for that website?! Seems to be sleazily common…

      2. Clearly this organicbabyfood foreign site is trolling. BEWARE! I also read some bad things about them.

    3. I also went with the Holle formula and preordered it in preparation of the possibility or not producing enough milk. Unfortunately, my little one was born six weeks premature and now I am in desperate search or an organic formula that will work for preemies. It need to meet nutritional demands. Has anyone found one that does so? At this point, I don’t need for it to meet perfect standards, just better than the one they’re going to give him if I don’t find one soon! Has anyone found one? Please help.

      1. Making your own is the best… you can customize it to your needs … instructions and sources may be found at RadiantLife.com or from the Weston A. Price Foundation (which also has a lot of educational info and a book Nourishing Traditions with a lot of basic how-tos for tradidtional food prep along with baby formula recipes and guidelines, including tips on how to beef up a commercial baby formula if that is what you choose; and they also have a Nourishing Traditions book for children’s food which I haven’t seen) My son needed to supplement one of his children and after much research they decided to go with the home-made formula recipe mentioned from WestonAPriceFoundation/Nourishing Traditions book using goat’s milk from a lady down the road initially and then when that wasn’t available they found a powdered goat’s milk to use in the recipe. It may seem daunting at first, but once in the routine, it becomes just that: recipe becomes ingrained and mixed once every other day or so depending on how much is consumed in a day. The best thing about it is knowing you are doing a good thing and giving your child a good start nutritionally. It may also sound expensive and can be with some of the optional ingredients, but it is worth it when you consider you will be eliminating doctor visits and medicines, etc. that go with a poor immune system due to poor nutrition. Radiant Life actually sells the kits to make the WestonA.Price formula recipe, which may be a good way to get started at least and then try to find sources for the various components at better prices elsewhere. Just remember: the best thing you can do for your infant is to give him/her a good nutritional foundation which will determine/impact his/her health for life! Best wishes!

    4. After a ton of research we decided on and love Holle – we’ve been buying from a great site who ships from the US… Biobaby24.

      1. I am now never going to buy from this company because of fake people they hired like you to pretend to be consumers. Pathetic

  1. Any thoughts or experience with the new organic infant formula from the Honest Company that was recently released?

    1. I just checked it out today. The ingredients are not promising. If you go to their site there is a clear picture of all the ingredients. If you compare the top nasty ingredients to other formulas in this article it seems Baby’s Only is still your best store bought option.

      1. I completely agree. Was very hopeful this would be a good option for US purchase, but it’s not much better than Nature’s Only or Earths Best. Stick with Hipp if you can or Holle as second choice.

      2. I wish hipp or holle was sold in th US. for us lower income single moms, food assistance is our only means of buying food, including formula. Ebay, amazon, and out of country sites do not accept this form of payment. Kind of unfair that the less fortunate, once again, are put in a position where the healthiest options arent options for them. 🙁

      3. Hipp and Holle or anything else bought overseas will be xrayed. I haven’t found a definitive answer as to whether this harms the formula or baby. Also they contain the same Palm Oil she says is bad because it causes soaping. They also contain rapeseed oil. I know it says they are organic or 99% if you read the fine print. Rapeseed is one of the most common gmos for producing canola oil. Baby’s Only says they remove all the environmental toxins in it’s formula- the arsenic issue that was on her link. It’s naturally occuring because some of our ancestors thought arsenic was a great pesticide for cotton and now its still in the soil being absorbed in the rice crops. They also use a DHA source that DOES NOT have HEXANE. I’ve researched it and it’s all a headache and scare the $H!T out of us. My wife would rather be exclusicley breastfeeding but it’s not working out in her favor, so we supplement. A few more months and we won’t have to. Thank goodness. This is ridiculous. Why can’t the damn US govt make companies produce safe food?

    2. My baby had stomach problems with other formulas. Holle has made her a very happy baby! I highly recommend this for your child. It is simply the best. We buy from http://www.organicbabyfood24.com. A million times better than anything you can buy on American soil.

      1. We tried them and found they are shady characters in germany (not US).

      2. Beware of organicbaby24. They are shady characters from germany.

        We ended up using biobaby24 many times. In NY and very quick and great customer service.

  2. My baby is less than 4 weeks old… I tried Breastfeeding her however I am not producing milk. We started off supplementing with Similac advance, she was spitting this formula up to where she was getting strangled and having issues breathing. .. we switched to the emfamil for spit up and now she is crying with her stomach everytime I feed her… we just do not know what formula to get her… I want to get organic but I am unsure of which is our best option? ?? Please help???

    1. The baby is being poisoned by GMOs which is in all baby formulas except for Organic formulas. Baby’s Only Organic is the best one. You can order it online if you can’t find it in a health food store and it will be shipped to your house. Never use Emfamil, Similac or anything you find in normal stores. GMOs cause cancer, Autism, GI problems, Diabetes, neurological disorders, reproductive damage, miscarriages and many many other horrible conditions. Go on youtube and watch “Seeds of Death”

      1. Hi . I am looking for the Baby’s Only Organic Infant formula. I can’t seem to find infant, only toddler is coming up on my searches. My son is only 5 weeks old and I have to supplement with formula. Can you please post a link for the infant formula from this brand? Thank you.

      2. Heather thank you so much for replying… I am just now starting to understand GMO’s. Great video you recommended.. It was very informative. I’m undecided whether I should get the baby’s only organic or make my own formula at home which I have found can be pricy… my question is, if I’m understanding things correctly, with the baby’s only she would still be exposed to the BPA chemicals from the packaging?

      3. Baby’s Only “toddler formula” is safe for newborns. (I double checked with our pediatrician) I started my baby on it from 2 days old…she is now 5 weeks and doing well. I read multiple sources online that the company promotes breast feeding for baby’s to 1 year and labels their formula “toddler” to encourage it. I order it online through Amazon. We have prime and use the subscribe and save with 5 items per month shipped to get the 15% off. Comes to just over $12 per can which is $3.00 cheaper than in our organic store locally. Best of luck!

      4. What about snap moms Vegan homemade formula ? Algae , brewers yeast? Coconut water , dates ?Any one have nutritional facts per serving ? Comments or experience? Is it for 1-6 mo old ?

    2. Go with Hipp. It’s German but amazing. See my long post above, I described a similar situation with my son.

      1. I checked out Hipp’s ingredient list, and even they use palm oil 🙁 I’m pregnant for the second time, and the first time my milk didnt come in for like 3 weeks after I had my baby, and even then it wasnt enough. So I had to formula feed. That was 4 years ago, before I went organic. Now, I’m having a hard time finding an organic suitable choice, just in case I cannot breastfeed again.
        Here’s the link for Hipp’s ingredients.
        http://www.hipp4hcps.co.uk/Resources/Product-Information-Sheet-Ingredients-June-14.pdf

      2. Holle is the best, closest to natural milk formula I’ve tried. No chalky, artificial smell, great formulation. All other major brand formulas we tried literally smelled like rotten eggs, or extremely chalky. I cringed at the smells. I had the hardest time giving those disgusting smelling formulas to my new born. But until I found Holle I had no choice. We found it on: http://www.organicbabyfood24.com

      3. That organicbaby24 site ships from germany, which it seems you are shilling for in this thread. I know of two people who have had bad experiences with them. Note to organicbaby24 – please do not advertise here as it’s sleazy… These are our children!!

        For those who are legitimate I also use Holle – they are the only non-soy demeter quality available! I also use BioBaby24 – who imports from germany, but ships from the USA (NY I think).

  3. I thought that people should avoid soy and soy lecithin? Also, do most have cocoanut and sunflower as ingredients? I am supposed to be avoiding all 3 of those things and am nervous that the formula might bother a child that may have the same allergies but undetected allergies.

  4. Just wanted to say Thank you so much! My daughter who was born 3 months early and is now 6 1/2 months is thriving on this formula. The drs can not believe how healthy she looks. When I had to supplement with regular formula she ended up getting an umbillical hernia b/c she was straining so much trying to have bowel movements that just weren’t coming out for her. Every 10-12 days the drs said I could give her a suppository. Since being on this formula she has bowel movements regulary and her umbillical hernia is starting to heal on its own. Thank you!

    Testimonial to http://www.Coopersrecipe.com
    You can make your healthy baby formula here!

  5. We think our son has dairy and corn sensitivity. He has bad reflux and digestive issues. What formula is out there that is dairy free and corn free?

  6. My 4 month old spits up soooo bad and we’ve tried everything other than organic. She’s even on zantac which I hate and doesn’t seem to be helping anyways. Do you all really think that switching to an organic formula might help this? It just doesn’t seem right for her to be spitting up literally half her feeding and spitting up from one bottle to the next.

  7. trying to find a good formula is so difficult! i tried babys only for my infant but he got so constipated and gassy i had to stop. he was literally curling up and screaming from pain. i don’t think it works for most infants. i had ordered HiPP formula but read that the formula contains high levels of aluminum. i even asked the site where i had purchased it and they confirmed that information 🙁 wanted to go with Holle but it terribly constipated my niece and nephew so i was afraid to. just started the honest company and baby seems to be ok on it although I’m not loving the ingredients, THE STRUGGLE IS REAL!

  8. So baby’s only looks like the best choice but they only make toddler formula. Is it safe to give my 7 month old? I am going to need to start supplementing and I want to make the best choice. The nutritional value is comparable to the vermont organics for infants.

  9. My son is 3 months old. I stopped breastfeeding him last week due to too many intolerances. We never really figured out what it was. We are thinking cows milk protein. He went from Nutramigen to Alimentum and he spits up a TON. From one feeding to the next. He has acid reflux and is on a medication for that. I literally go through receiving blankets during the day to clean up puke. It gets everywhere. I need a good formula that he can hold down and yes I have tried putting rice cereal in it.

  10. If you are looking for a healthy, sugar free, soy free, gluten free, and raw formula check out coopersrecipe.com

  11. I am now not certain the place you are getting
    your information, however good topic. I needs to spend a while finding out
    more or working oout more. Thanks for great info I was in search of this information for my mission.

  12. We have 2 extra packs of Holle organic infant formula (1st stage).. If interested contact me : [email protected] for more info. The formula was bought from Prague, so package has no English labels whatsoever, but you can find directions online.

  13. Hey there! I’ve been following your blog for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Huffman Texas!
    Just wanted to mention keep up the good job!

  14. Does anyone have a straight answer about an all natural baby formula?

    I am really shocked to see the organic ones have i.e. potassium hydroxide, Palm oil etc. and a number of other chemicals which shouldn’t be in there.

    Does anyone have a straight answer about an all natural baby formula?

  15. Has anyone checked out the new organic formula just released within the last month or two by the Honest Company? Their DHA is an add in product as the typical DHA added to formulas does not meet their standards. Is it any better than the other formulas on the market?

  16. I have a 6 week old and have had all sorts of issues…like major gas and acid reflux. She was uncomfortable ALL the time! We originally used Baby’s Only Organic formula starting at 3 weeks to help supplement my low amounts of breast milk, but then found out about this amazing formula made in Germany that is almost identical to breast milk and is made for sensitive infant tummies. It’s called Hipp Organic. We had it shipped 2 day air just because our little girl was so uncomfortable and WOW…what a difference this stuff made! Hardly any gas…she wasn’t constipated…it was like she was drinking breast milk. We still have some issues with acid reflux but not nearly as bad. The Hipp formula saved us. Now our baby seems comfortable and peaceful whereas before she was gassy…crying and irritable. I feel so much better about supplementing with formula now that we found the organic Hipp formula. I knew if I did enough searching I would find something really great with good ingredients. Check out the ingredients and why it’s better than formula made in the USA: http://hippformulausa.com. I hope this helps. This formula was a game-changer. Can’t recommend it enough!

    1. We used it for the first 5 months for my 7 month old. But we wont buy it anymore. Hipp contains palm oil(according to this site causes soaping inside the baby) and rapeseed oil(a known gmo product). Its also been in the articles about leeching aluminum into the formula from the bags it’s shipped it. Items overseas are xrayed when imported to the USA). Im not a doctor and do not know if this is unsafe for the baby or formula, but i dont want to use it after hearing this disturbing info. I think im going to a US brand. And if you moms want to make your own with raw milk. Think again. Raw milk may contain salmonella and e coli.

  17. I am breastfeeding our 2 month old. I am taking prenatal vitamins & extra D & C, but I was told by our pediatrician that I need to give our baby vitamin D, A, E. She said to get Enfamil’s Tri-vi-sol. I checked the label & there are all sorts of artificial flavorings. Is there a natural brand or option out there? Please help!

  18. MRSA staph infection is another severe type of staph skin infection which is caused by Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureas.
    Warmth, tight clothes, moisture and contact with bacteria, yeast and fungus are caused
    of spread of Jock Itch. However, when you take in antibiotics, it kills bacteria even the good bacteria in your gut.

  19. I exclusively breastfed my baby the first 3 1/2 months and then introduced formula (enfamil gentle ease) but still breast feed at night as she’s will only drink breast milk at night. Now I read a lot of bad stuff about enfamil so my husband bought Vermont organic formula.. So far she’s doing good with that. But is it safe to give her that one? Any other alternatives that are cheaper? As our income isn’t that great? I’ve tried pumping a lot but no longer produce much breast milk for my little one
    Thanks in advance!!!

  20. Everything is very open with a clear explanation of the issues.
    It was truly informative. Your site is very useful.

    Thanks for sharing!

  21. Thanks for sharing your experience. Its very challenging that how to find the safest organic baby formula. Babies are very sensitive at this age and mothers want best organic milk for their babies.

  22. so im confused, hipp has aliminum, holle isnt the best either, any bad reviews on lebenswart? what about babys only??? help!

  23. Hello,
    I am looking for a vegetarian infant formula (dairy is ok, and certainly want to avoid soy as much as possible but not fish oil/animal rennet etc). Are they any options at all? organicstart says getting without animal rennet is very tough. Have checked google search quite a bit, and could not find.
    Thank you
    Karthik

  24. Dear Mothers,

    we ship european baby milk powder directly from Germany. We do our best to deliver the products fast and at best price! Try it out and get 10% off (Code: SUMMER2019).

    We wish you and your children all the best!

    organicsbestshop.com

  25. I am thinking about putting my 4 months old baby girl on HIPP formula. Found a couple of online stores selling HIPP… I am going to order some. I have heard these stores deliver pretty fast.
    And thanks Charlotte for the helpful article.

  26. Dear Parents,
    We offer HiPP, Holle and Lebenswert organic formula and ship directly from Germany to USA & Canada.
    With shipment by DHL Express you’ll receive your order within a few days.
    My-germany-depot is already 5 years in business and a trusted supplier for parents looking for the best organic formula.

  27. Excellent writing indeed!
    In my opinion, When you are trying to decide on the best organic infant formula, take a deep look at the nutrients that it offers to your baby. I have a great experience with https://formularus.com/. Formularus provide organic formula that is filled with Vitamin E, antioxidants, and Lutein to help ensure healthy brain development in babies.

  28. Great to see such a detailed write-up. As a supplier of organic baby formula we know that taking the time to carefully vet our products is paramount. We’ve been happy to keep our shipping times down to a minimum at mommyformula.com, especially during the pandemic.

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