If you’re new to formula feeding or just learning your options as a parent-to-be, you might have a lots of questions about what’s actually in baby formula. What makes baby formula nutritious? How does the nutrition in baby formula compare to breast milk? Whether you are breastfeeding and using formula as a supplement or using baby formula exclusively, this is your baby’s most important food source for their first year. We want to make sure all of you as new parents and care givers have the chance to understand what it is exactly that you are feeding your babies.
Let’s dive it and discuss the ingredients, nutrients, and forms of baby formula so you can get your questions answered!
What are the types of baby formula?
Baby formulas are often categorized by the type of protein used to make them:1,2
Milk-based baby formula
Most baby formula sold in the US is cow’s milk-based. It’s important to know that even though these formulas are “cow’s milk-based” they are processed to meet the needs of infants and reflect the nutritional composition of breast milk as much as possible, so they are very different from the cow’s milk you get in a carton at the grocery store.
Soy-based baby formula
This is just like it sounds- soy-based formula contains soy protein like the adult versions of soy milk you may be familiar with. However, just like milk-based formulas, these formulas are processed and have added ingredients to make them safe and nutricious for babies, so they are very different from the soy milk you may drink.
Hypoallergenic baby formula
These formulas may be protein hydrolysate (meaning the protein is broken down into much smaller pieces than in milk- or soy-based formula) or amino acid (without protein peptides) formulas.
What are the forms of baby formula?
Baby formula comes in 3 forms:
Powder baby formula
Powdered formula comes in a container with its own measuring scoop. It’s easy to find and comes in many different varieties- milk-based, soy-based, hypoallergenic, organic, and the list goes on. This is generally the least expensive option and is prepared by mixing the powder with water.3 This is usually the most ‘green’ option in regards to environment because it decreases the weight for transportation.
Liquid concentrate baby formula
Liquid concentrate formula works similarly to powdered formula in terms of preparation. In this case, you are just mixing a liquid concentrate with water instead of powder. One bonus of liquid concentrate is that prepared formula can be stored in the fridge for 48 hours instead of 24 hours like prepared powdered formula. However, the trade off is that it is more expensive than powder.3
Ready-to-feed baby formula
Ready-to-feed formula is, well, ready to feed. No mixing with water, just open and serve. Any unused formula from an opened container can also be stored in the fridge for 48 hours like formula made from liquid concentrate. However, you pay a price for this easy option, as it is the most expensive of the three.3
Ingredients in baby formula
Now that we know the different types and forms of formula, let’s take a look at the ingredients in baby formula that make it nutritious.
Macronutrients in baby formula
- Carbohydrate: Lactose is the main carbohydrate in most cow’s milk-based formula. However, there are often other kinds of carbohydrates used in cow’s milk-based infant formulas like sucrose or glucose.4
- Protein: The proteins in milk-based infant formula are whey and casein.4
- Fat: Usually this is a blend of vegetable oils that provides similar nutrition to the fatty acids in breast milk.4
Other ingredients found in baby formula
While the 3 macronutrients above are the main components of baby formula, there are also other ingredients that are important for your baby’s growth and development.
- Vitamins and minerals. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) makes recommendations for the vitamin and mineral content of infant formula. Minimum and some maximum requirements for the amounts of each that must be in baby formula are set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).5
- Prebiotics and probiotics. These substances are not required to be in baby formula, but some manufacturers add them. These are meant to support the immune system in your baby’s digestive tract.5
What about iron in baby formula?
Iron is an important ingredient in baby formula because it helps to prevent anemia. Almost all baby formulas have iron added. Low-iron formulas are only needed for certain medical conditions and shouldn’t be used unless recommended by your baby’s healthcare provider.5,6
A note on vitamins and minerals in baby formula
Because the FDA sets minimum (and some maximum) amounts on the level of nutrients that must be in baby formula, it’s important to know that any commercial brand sold in the US meets these standards. So, while there is variation between brands of formula, and some may add additional ingredients, they should all meet the standard nutritional needs of a healthy infant.7
Are there ingredients in breast milk that formula doesn’t have?
The short answer is “yes”. Baby formula has many ingredients that are important for infant growth and development, but breast milk is an amazingly complex substance and some components just aren’t able to be duplicated in baby formula. Breast milk has some infection fighting properties and also offers health benefits to breastfeeding mothers.8
While exclusive breastfeeding is recommended by the AAP for the first 6 months (and up to 12 months if possible), there are lots of reasons why parents might not be able to or choose not to exclusively breastfeed. When this is the case, baby formula can provide all the nutrition your baby needs to grow and develop.8
Overview, what’s in baby formula:
A list of ingredients in baby formula will vary somewhat depending on the brand and its mix of ingredients. However, essential ingredients, vitamins, and minerals are in every baby formula.
Remember, your baby’s healthcare provider is an expert in all things baby formula, so you can always ask them any questions you have along the way!