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If you’re new to the formula world and what to get into the nitty gritty breakdown, we dive deep for you.

Are you wondering about what is in baby formula? Many people often wonder about what something is made of, especially something that’s for consumption. Saying this to say, it is completely natural and necessary for you to be curious about what your baby’s formula is made of. 

While baby formula is often created to supplement breastfeeding, it is also created to be a safe alternative. Many moms, as much as they would love to – simply aren’t able to breastfeed their little one and that’s okay. It’s okay because researchers, nutritionists, pediatricians, and caring companies understand the need for a good baby formula that takes away the worry some new moms may have about the nutritional makeup of baby formula – and they often provide for it. 

In this article, it is our hope to provide you with as much information as possible about what is in infant formula. 

What Are the Types of Baby Formula?

There are three main types of baby formula, all of which differ based on the type of protein used as the primary ingredient:

  • Most baby formula is made from cow milk protein. Here, formula creators take the base proteins that make up the cow milk and alter the mix slightly for it to be suitable for human infants. Cow’s milk is most often used because it has an excellent balance of nutrients as well as it is a little easier to digest for most babies. However, those who are allergic to cow’s milk can use one of the other two variants.
  • The second most common formula variety is soy formula. Here, the protein base used comes from the soybean plant; it is often displayed as “soy protein isolate”. This formula type is ideal if your infant has food allergies like lactose intolerance or otherwise can’t properly digest cow milk proteins. It’s also a good choice if you and your family aim to consume a plant-based diet. 
  • Formulas made with “protein hydrolysate”. Here, the proteins from a cow’s milk base or even a soy milk base are further broken down, making them even more digestible. This formula type is made for sensitive stomachs and is often a special recommendation.

While some edge cases exist, such as formulas made with goat milk protein, these are the three most common you’ll find. Many pediatricians can prescribe specialized formulas if your infant has a specific medical condition requiring such accommodations.

What Are The Forms?

All of the above baby formula types come in three main forms: 

  • Powdered formula is the most common and the least expensive option. The formula is scooped into a bottle or container, where you mix it with water that is safe for drinking.
  • Liquid concentrate formula is the second most common. It’s also mixed with water safe for drinking. This type of formula can be better for certain ingredients, digestive issues, or if your baby prefers the texture. It mixes into a smoother liquid final form than powder.
  • Some formula also comes in ready to use format, which is incredibly convenient and doesn’t need to be mixed with anything. It’s also the most expensive since it doesn’t require any preparation on your part aside from proper storage.

Which type of formula is the best, nutritionally speaking? It doesn’t matter in most cases; all that differs is preparation time and cost. You should choose a baby formula based on your own timescale and budget.

Typical Ingredients in Formula

Baby formula is created with a rich collection of ingredients and nutrients so that it can provide babies everything they need for their immune systems, brain development, and overall infant nutrition. Within the US, every infant formula that is marketed for distribution must meet the specific nutrient regulations as provided by the FDA. These regulations provide a minimum amount of specified nutrients that do not exceed the maximum. 

Three Macronutrients

All types of baby formula will have some amount of these three main macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. 

Protein, as discussed above. Protein is needed so that your baby can grow new tissues, like muscles, but also to aid their continued growth and development.

Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for babies. Most types of baby formula use lactose as the main carbohydrate source; this often replicates what babies would get in human breast milk. 

Apart from lactose, you might also find baby formulas that have other types of carbohydrates such as maltodextrin, sucrose, or corn syrup solids. All of these may seem too sugary, but they don’t mean the exact same thing as they do on the back of a candy bar. Instead, these carbohydrates are distilled to their purest forms without having tons of sugar. These may be used if your baby has an allergy to lactose or otherwise can’t take cow’s milk-based formula. 

Lastly, baby formula will contain a fat component. This critical macronutrient actually makes up about 40% to 50% of breast milk’s energy component.

In breast milk, the fat is made up of several fatty acids like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). Some baby formula brands use plant-based oils in most cases to supply these nutrients. While others try to add DHA and ARA that have been sourced from acceptable means – although controversial, some moms prefer to have these fatty acids. 

No two formulas are exactly the same, so don’t be surprised if the ingredients list slightly varies from formula to formula- as stated the FDA strictly regulates the nutritional content of formulas so the difference should not be too wide. 

Other Ingredients

While the three macronutrients above make up the wide share of what you’ll find in typical baby formula, the best formulas also have additional micronutrient ingredients as recommended by health care organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Food and Drug Administration in the United States:

  • Vitamins and minerals. Your little one has specific nutritional needs, minerals like zinc and calcium are needed for your baby’s growth and development. As well as vitamins like vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and K are needed for strength, energy, and support. Baby formulas with plenty of vitamins and minerals are a must.
  • Enzymes and amino acids. Enzymes are compounds that will help your infant to break down other components for easier digestion or absorption. Additional amino acids are important for growth and so, added to your infant formula. 
  • Prebiotics and probiotics. These are collections of either helpful bacteria or substances that promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your baby’s intestines. All humans require a healthy microbiome (the bacteria that live in your gut and help you digest and break down the food you eat) for proper nutrition. This may not be commonly seen in infant formula but it is not uncommon. 

What About Iron?

You’ll also find “iron-fortified” or “iron-rich” baby formula. According to the AAP, iron is a necessary mineral that your baby needs to properly develop, particularly during infancy when they’re so vulnerable. 

Breastfeeding already provides this mineral, but mothers who use exclusively formula should always seek out iron-fortified brands whenever they can.

A Note on Vitamins and Minerals

Many baby formula ingredient labels from formula manufacturers are a little less transparent than they should be. This can make them seem like they don’t have some essential vitamins or minerals when they actually do. For instance, vitamin B12 can also be called its official names, which are “cobalamin and cyanocobalamin”. Thus, it’s a good idea to do a little research before buying a formula to make sure that said formula has all the nutrients you’re looking for. 

That being said, most good baby formula brands these days contain what your little one needs to grow healthily. Very few manufacturers exclude any major vitamins or minerals given their importance in a baby’s development and the FDA’s strict regulations.

Are There Ingredients In Breast Milk That Formula Doesn’t Have?

The short answer here is yes, breastmilk will have some properties that formula doesn’t.  However, these are often things that come from the mother’s own body in reaction to the baby’s own development. For instance, the mother’s body can provide living antibodies and white blood cells to her baby through breast milk, which is simply impossible for formula – there aren’t living cells in any formula to date.

However, this doesn’t mean that formula can’t give your baby what he needs to grow properly. Formulas these days are scientifically-made and tested to provide babies with necessary nutrition.

It’s entirely possible to raise your baby on breast milk alone, formula alone, or a combination depending on your unique needs and situation. 

Summary

Overall, what is in baby formula will slightly vary depending on the brand and its unique mix of ingredients. However, essential ingredients, vitamins, and minerals are a must as controlled by the FDA. This means that every baby formula brand you investigate should have more or less what we’ve discussed above. It’s always a good idea to find as much good stuff in a formula ingredients list as possible.Let us or your pediatrician know any other questions you may have; we’re experts on formula, so we can help you find a great choice for your little one in no time at all!

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