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Bottles & Boobs

Breast vs. Formula; A Food Scientist Weighs In on the Feeding Debate

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The breakdown from a Food Scientist

by Viji Ganesh, Food Scientist and Researcher and mom to one baby

Parenting involves a lot of decision-making; one of them being what to feed your baby.. During the first year as a parent, there are countless  occasions for a mom to ponder why and when she should choose breast over formula or vice versa. Below is a detailed analysis, based on the make-up of the two ‘milks’.

Breast milk is the gold standard and the blueprint for formula. Both breast milk and formula are macro nutritionally similar. This means, as a breastmilk substitute, both provide similar amounts of the most needed elements for the child – energy, carbs, fat, protein and hydration. Most formulas today also carry DHA and ARA at quantities similar to breast milk, that are essential for visual and mental development.

The Gist

Infant formulas support normal growth and development equivalent to breast milk and are a safe and nutritionally sound alternative when breastfeeding is not an option.

The allure of ‘Liquid Gold’

Just as no breast milk is created equal, no formula is created equal. Breast milk make-up and benefits are largely dependent on the mother’s health, diet, and lifestyle choices. Similarly, each formula brand is different because of the ingredients used to fine tune the formulation.

There are obvious positives with breast milk that formula is yet to match:

  • Antibodies – It is hard to match this personalized army that the breastfeeding mom creates and passes on to protect the infant from environmental pathogens and any infections she has already been through.
  • Probiotics – The natural, living, active gut bacteria are passed on through breast milk and help an infant create a healthy digestive tract, softer stools, immunity, and even lesser allergies.
  • Prebiotics – Human milk oligosaccharides are essentially carbs that help feed probiotics and maintain a healthy gut.
  • Growth factors and hormones – Again, personalized and supportive of infant’s growth and development. 
  • Flavors – The sweetness can be matched, but breast milk offers a touch of flavor from the other foods eaten by the mom throughout the day; formula is yet to add the spice and kick!

When does formula deliver more than breast milk?

Formula delivers micronutrients, that are the next critical tier of nutrients at levels needed to support normal growth and development, and avoid deficiency. This is the reason for infant formulas to hit “complete nutrition” or be considered a “sole source of nutrition.” 

  • Iron – Formula contains more iron than breast milk to prevent anemia and continues to supply sufficient iron even if the infant is not introduced to iron-rich foods at six months. The baby’s innate iron stores are spent by six months and breast milk provides very little iron.
  • Vitamin B12 – Many vegetarian and vegan diets lack this essential vitamin and hence it’s often deficient in the breast milk of such moms.

Apart from these, formula can be a better option and even safer in situations when:

  1. he mom is deficient in certain nutrients,for instance: essential fatty acids (omega-3s) and calcium
  2. he mom’s diet is unhealthy,for instance: contains a lot of high fructose corn syrup-based foods
  3. he infant cannot digest lactose or has galactosemia 
  4. he mom is undergoing medical treatments and taking strong medications

The better the food the better the milk

Cow’s milk gleans the benefits based on what the farm animal eats. Human milk is no different; it can be nutritionally superior when the mother is on a healthy and conscious diet.

The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant's pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.
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Meet the Author

Viji Ganesh

Viji as a food scientist with experience in infant nutrition. She holds a Masters in Food Science and a Bachelors in Biotechnology, with 12+ years in lab and industrial R&D/ product development. Products of significance that have seen the journey of formulation through commercialization include infant formula and cultured products (cheese, yogurts and probiotic drinks). As a mom of two girls, Viji truly believes that 'ingredients matter' and that starts with the child's first nutrition.

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