The answer isn’t black-and-white. In the last few decades, more companies have started offering organic products. Consumers have become more interested in the ingredients and processing of their foods— and for good reason. But the term ‘organic’ isn’t a catch-all for healthy food. And it’s still important to read ingredient labels, even though they may be daunting.
We want you to feel empowered to read the ingredients on your baby formula label. You should have all the tools to understand what’s in (and not in) your baby’s food.
This article will break down the question, ‘Is organic formula better than regular formula’.
We’ll explain what ‘organic’ even means, as well as what nutrients are in formula. We’ll also do some comparisons and see if there are any differences across formulas.
What does ‘organic’ really mean?
The word ‘organic’ means natural without-bio or mechanical farming. ‘Organic’ labeled foods are certified1 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA sets standards for growing and processing organic foods. These guidelines speak to the quality of soil, animal rearing practices, additives, and pesticide use. But organic labels may differ and there are a few classes of organic.
Let’s explore what different organic labels mean:
What it means to be labeled ‘100 percent organic’:
Products that bear this label must be made of 100 % organic ingredients, with the exception of natural substances like water and salt. These products can use the USDA organic seal.
What it means to be labeled ‘organic’:
Products that bear this label must be made up of 95% organic ingredients, except for water and salt. The ‘5%’ must only be used if organic products are not available. The products can also use the USDA organic seal.
What it means to be labeled ‘made with organic xyz’:
Products that say ‘made with organic xyz’ means that the product must contain 70% organic ingredients. These items cannot use the USDA organic seal.
As you can see, the organic label on your infant formula doesn’t tell you anything about the nutrients inside the product. What it does show is that the product was produced in a way that reduces your baby’s possible exposure to harmful chemicals and the like. It means that the company has limited the use of certain conventional pesticides, antibiotics, or growth hormones.
Organic farming and agriculture2 tend to be more mindful of the environment and sustainability. Organic foods are a good choice if you are concerned about by-products of agriculture, such as pesticides and other chemicals. If these values align with yours, then an organic formula may be right for you.
But don’t stop at the label, let’s continue on to the ingredients and nutrient profile.
Nutrients in baby formula
Nutrition is so important3 in early life, and can influence growth and development throughout the lifetime. That’s why the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets specific standards for infant formula4. These standards make sure that every formula on the market is safe, and they provide a minimum and maximum amount of specified nutrients required for baby formula.
Important vitamins and nutrients for newborns5:
- Vitamin A: This helps to support the immune system and vision.
- B vitamins: This helps to change food into energy.
- Vitamin C: This supports growth and helps to repair body tissues, it also helps to protect cells from damage.
- Vitamin D: This helps the baby to absorb calcium and supports strong bones.
- Vitamin E: This helps to support the immune system and blood flow.
- Vitamin K: This is important for blood clotting and bone growth.
Important minerals for newborns:
- Calcium: This is important for growing strong bones and teeth.
- Zinc: This helps the baby to develop a sense of taste and smell as well, and it helps with growth and development.
- Iron: Iron is very important for growth and development, and is used in several body processes. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages iron fortifications in formulas6 because many infants have low levels of iron. If you’re worried about your baby getting enough iron7, talk to your pediatrician about an iron supplement or using a formula with more iron.
DHA and ARA in baby formula
Some infant formulas contain the fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid). These are both found in breast milk, as well as algae, fungi, eggs, and fish oil. Many manufacturers make supplements of these fatty acids and some brands include this in their infant formula. But there is some controversy among scientists about whether or not they are necessary for infants.
DHA and ARA8 are not currently required by the FDA, which states, “fatty acids in infant formulas may have positive effects on visual function and neural development over the short term. Other studies in infants do not confirm these benefits.” Still, some researchers believe DHA and ARA are necessary for infant development9.
Breast-fed babies display higher levels of DHA and ARA than infants who get formulas without those fatty acids. Some studies show that infants who received DHA and ARA had better outcomes in areas of cognition, vision, and immunity. However, the sources for these fatty acids may raise questions for parents (algae and fungi).
Research is still being done to determine whether these fatty acids are truly essential for growth and development. If you have questions about supplementing DHA and ARA, this may be a good matter to bring up with your pediatrician on your next visit.
Ingredients you don’t want to have in your baby formula:
Corn Syrup in baby formula
This comes from corn starch10 and is a type of sweetener that is used in many products, including baby formula. You may be thinking of high fructose corn syrup, but these are not the same. Corn syrup is made up of glucose; a carbohydrate and an important energy source for babies. Breast milk and cow’s milk have lactose instead of glucose, but both are sugars.
The issue with corn syrup is that it is artificial and processed. The European Union actually bans corn syrup from European formulas, but the FDA does not. You may want to avoid corn syrup if you are wanting to limit the processed ingredients your baby receives.
High fructose corn syrup in baby formula
(HFCS) is corn syrup that has been processed10 even further to convert glucose into fructose. This makes it sweeter; HFCS is used in processed foods like soft drinks and candy.
A lot of people are concerned about HFCS and its use in infant formula. However, the FDA10 states that they are not aware of any safety issues comparing HFCS to other forms of sugar. They do recommend that all Americans limit consumption of sugar, but are not specifically concerned about processed sugars.
If you are wanting to limit your baby’s intake of refined sugars, it may be wise to look out for HFCS on the label of your formula.
Different types of cow’s milk for baby formula
When it comes to cow’s milk you will typically see three main kinds: Conventional, Organic, and Grass-fed. Let’s talk about the differences between them.
Grass-fed cows milk in baby formula:
Grass-fed cows milk comes from cows who eat a grass-based diet. These cows graze pastures until the winter months. During the winter, the cows are kept in a barn and are fed cut grass.
Milk from pasture-fed cows in baby formula:
Milk from pasture-fed cows12 has a higher protein and fat content than conventionally produced cow’s milk. In studies, grass-fed cows milk11 has proven to provide more omega-3 fatty acids13. These are thought to be important for memory, cognition, and other early developmental processes.
Unlike organic products, there is no FDA certification system for these items. However, there are private organizations that certify grass-fed milk and dairy products.
Organic cow’s milk in baby formula:
Organic cow’s milk These items are certified organic by the USDA. They come from cows who feed on grass in a pasture 20-30% of the time. They eat a diet of mostly organically produced grains. This feed must be free from any artificial pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and the like.
Conventionally produced cow’s milk in baby formula:
Conventionally produced cow’s milk comes from cows that feed on a mostly grain diet, and graze the grass rarely. These feeds typically consist of grains, corn, and soy.
Soy Infant Formulas
Soy Infant Formulas are often sold in organic and non-organic forms as well. This type of formula might be appropriate if an infant is allergic to dairy, or if milk products are otherwise not appropriate. Check out our article on soy infant formulas for a deep dive into this topic.
The breakdown on organic versus non-organic baby formula
Many parents wonder if there are big differences between regular and organic formula. The good news is that the FDA regulates formula so that you know that your baby is getting the basic nutrients they need.
It comes down to choosing a formula with the right ingredients, right values and right price point for you, specifically. Organic formula can be more expensive than conventional formula because the production process is more strict. For those who are concerned about harmful chemicals in formula, an organic infant formula may be right for you.
The best choice for your family is one that fits your budget and your values.
- Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means | United States Department of Agriculture
- Organic Agriculture | National Institute of Food and Agriculture
- Questions an Answers for Consumers Concerning Infant Formulas | United States Food and Drug Administration
- Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 | United States Food and Drug Administration
- Dietary Supplements Fact Sheet | National Institute of Health
- Iron Fortification of Infant Formulas | American Academy of Pediatrics
- Iron | Centers for Disease Control
- Questions and Answers for Consumers Concerning Infant Formula | United States Food and Drug Administration
- DHA and ARA addition to infant formula: Current status and future research directions | PubMed
- High Fructose Corn Syrup Questions and Answers | United States Food and Drug Administration
- Enhancing the fatty acid profile of milk through forage-based rations, with nutrition modeling of diet outcomes | Wiley Online Library
- The “Grass-Fed” Milk Story: Understanding the Impact of Pasture Feeding on the Composition and Quality of Bovine Milk | National Center for Biotechnology Information
- Fetal and Neonatal Levels of Omega-3: Effects on Neurodevelopment, Nutrition, and Growth | National Center for Biotechnology Information