The human species has been breastfeeding for nearly half a million years. It’s only in the last 60 years that we have begun to give babies the highly processed convenience food called “formula.” US formula manufactures spend around 8 million dollars per year marketing infant formula, while La Leche League International (LLLI), the best-known breastfeeding advocacy group, has a 3.5 million annual budget.
No wonder modern mothers are encouraged to embrace the bottle-feeding culture. But what’s really in baby formula?
In US commercial infant formulas are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Three major types are available.
- Cow's milk formulas. Most infant formula is made with cow's milk that's been altered to resemble breast milk. This gives the formula a better balance of nutrients, and makes the formula easier to digest. Most babies can tolerate cow's milk formula. Some babies, however, such as those allergic to the proteins in cow's milk, need other types of infant formula.
- Soy-based formulas. Soy-based formulas can be useful for parents who want to exclude animal proteins from their child's diet. Soy-based infant formulas might also be an option for babies who are intolerant or allergic to cow's milk formula or to lactose, a carbohydrate naturally found in cow's milk. However, babies who are allergic to cow's milk may also be allergic to soy milk.
- Protein hydrolysate formulas. These types of formulas contain protein that's been broken down (hydrolyzed) partially or extensively into smaller components than are in cow's milk and soy-based formulas. Protein hydrolysate formulas are meant for babies who don't tolerate cow's milk or soy-based formulas. Extensively hydrolyzed formulas are an option for babies who have a protein allergy.
All infant formula try to mimic breast milk, but experts agree that the highly processed breast milk substitutes cannot compete with the real thing.
Baby formula was never intended to be consumed on the widespread basis that it is today. It was conceived in the late 1800s as a means of providing necessary sustenance for foundlings and orphans who would otherwise have starved. In this narrow context, where no other food was available, formula could be a lifesaver.
However, as time went on and the subject of human nutrition in general became more “scientific,” manufactured breast milk substitutes were promoted to the general public as a technological improvement to breast milk.
Breast milk substitues come with risks. Research shows that the use of formula often sabotage and shorten the nursing relationship, not to mention the various health consequences, including five times the risk of gastroenteritis, twice the risk of developing diabetes, and up to eight times the risk of developing lymphatic cancer.
Mary Smale, a lactation consultant from UK’s National Childbirth Trust told Ecologist Magazine, “If anybody were to ask ‘which formula should I use?’ or ‘which is nearest to mother’s milk?’ The answer would be ‘nobody knows.’ Because there is not one single objective source of that kind of information provided by anybody.”
“Only the manufacturers know what’s in their stuff, and they aren’t telling. They may advertise special ‘healthy’ ingredients like oligosaccharides, long-chain fatty acids, or, a while ago, beta-carotene, but they never actually tell you what the basic product is made form or where the ingredients come from,” said Smale.
That said, the known constituents of breast milk were, and are, used as a general reference for scientists devising infant formulas. But, to this day, there is no actual “formula” for formula. In fact, the process of producing infant formulas has, since its earliest days, been a trial and error process.
Modern parents might consider giving their babies formula for many reasons. But keep in mind that formula does come with consequences, and every mother needs to be aware of those so she can make truly informed decision on whether to use it or not.
A little history about infant formula: In 1974, Nestle was accused of getting third world mothers hooked on formula, which is less healthy and more expensive than breast milk. The allegations led to hearings in the Senate and the World Health Organization(WHO), resulting in a new set of marketing rules. Below is the cover of a booklet that blew the lid off the baby formula industry, publish by British human rights organization War on Want.