Bottles & Boobs

10 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know When Reading an American Baby Formula Label

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Written by Jessica D’Argenio Waller, MS, CNS, LDN— mom of two and a board-certified clinical nutritionist with a focus on women’s health.

Much like selecting a stroller or deciding which diaper brand to buy, choosing a newborn baby formula can overwhelm any parent (so many options—but they all do the same thing, right?!). Soon enough, decision fatigue strikes, and so you just click ‘add to cart’ and then wonder every night while mixing up that late night bottle whether you’ve made the right choice (OK, that last part is maybe just us). 

We’re here to help make baby your formula feeding journey simpler. Knowing how to read the ingredients label on your US made baby formula can hold the clues to helping you determine which is best for your baby. Keeping these tips in mind the first time you make the formula decision will give you peace of mind when you’re mixing up every subsequent bottle—we want that for you! Here’s what to look for when comparing formula cans.

1. Lactose should be the first baby formula ingredient

First, scan the can to find the nutrition facts label, then locate the list of ingredients. What’s up top? Ideally, it should be lactose. 

Lactose, or milk sugar, is the main source of carbohydrate nutrition in human breast milk. As such, your baby’s formula should contain lactose as the first ingredient. In truth, most infant formulas use nonfat milk as the first ingredient. 

Fun fact: Formulas that don’t contain lactose as the primary ingredient usually contain other sources of easy-to-digest carbohydrates such as corn syrup solids, which tend to be cheaper.

2. Be choosy about palm oil in your baby formula

For your baby’s formula to mimic human milk, it must contain fatty acids. Infant formula contains fatty acids that are derived from vegetable oils, but the type of vegetable oil can matter when it comes to your little one’s digestion. 

Normally, your infant formula will contain a blend of three oils. Opt for organic oils where possible: Safflower, sunflower, soybean and coconut oil are all excellent sources of easily digested fatty acids. 

Palm oil, on the other hand, isn’t easily digested by your baby’s brand new digestive system. In fact, babies may not absorb as much fatty acid as they need from palm oil, which can negatively impact their ability to gain weight. Palm oil can also be a source of constipation for babies: The proof is in the poop!

3. You want baby formula to have a good amount of DHA

DHA is a special type of long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that supports your baby’s brain and eye development. In the U.S., infant formula manufacturers are not required to disclose the amount of DHA their formula contains on their label. 

In the EU, infant formulas are required to contain no less than 20 mg of DHA per 100 calories. In the US, most standard infant formulas provide between 8-17 mg of DHA per 100 calories. Since the listing of the DHA amount is not required for US formulas, the only way to know for sure how much DHA is in your baby’s formula is to contact the manufacturer – you can find their phone number on the back of the canister.

4. The whey to casein ratio matters in baby formula

Whey and casein are the two main types of proteins in mammalian milks. Casein proteins are sometimes more difficult for babies to digest as they turn solid (curdle) in the presence of acid. This curdling can happen in the acidic environment of the stomach. On the other hand, whey proteins stay liquid in the stomach and are considered easier to digest compared to casein proteins. 

The ratio of whey to casein may affect your baby’s ability to digest the formula comfortably. More whey can help to make a formula more tolerable. Mature breast milk has a ratio 60:40 whey to casein ratio. Importantly, as your baby grows their digestive system grows and develops as well which means their ability to digest the proteins in infant formula often improves with time. If you see no improvement or symptoms that seem out of the norm for your baby it is important to bring it up with your baby’s pediatrician. If you would like to know the whey:casein ratio of your formula, contact the manufacturer.

5. Baby formula should have the USDA Organic Seal

Check for the green and white USDA organic seal on the front label. Infant formula is available in the U.S. in both organic and non-organic blends, and yep, there’s a difference, as organic formulas tend to be cleaner overall. 

Organic non-GMO formula predominantly contains ingredients that have been grown, harvested, and processed in a manner that doesn’t involve chemicals from pesticides or fertilizers. That USDA organic certification also means the ingredients that come from animals don’t contain growth hormones, and that the ingredients are not genetically modified. 

6. Check the milk source

Unless you’re using a hypoallergenic formula made from soy, all formula contains cow’s milk. But where that milk comes from is also important.

Organic milk, for example, is required to be sourced from cows who haven’t been given growth or reproductive hormones or treated with antibiotics, and who receive at least 30% of their diet from pasture grazing. Conventional (non-organic) milk doesn’t share these requirements. 

To put it simply, the same factors apply whether you’re choosing formula made from organic milk or organic milk for your fridge.

7. Find the FDA Statement

The FDA strictly regulates infant formula, which means that every single can of infant formula manufactured and sold in the U.S. will have a statement on the label showing it has been FDA regulated. 

If you don’t see a statement from the FDA on your can, don’t use it, as it’s not a safe decision to use any formula that isn’t FDA-regulated. This includes European baby formula.

More questions? Your child’s pediatrician can help you determine if your formula is safe or not. 

8. Ask about heavy metal testing in your baby formula

Not to make more work for you, but while you’ve got your formula manufacturer on the phone about DHA, ask what kind of testing they do to ensure the absence of heavy metals in baby formula. Lead, arsenic, BPA, and acrylamide have all been found in baby formula, which means it’s crucial that your formula manufacturer is testing every batch of formula produced to thoroughly ensure it’s safe for distribution. 

If your manufacturer can’t give a clear and direct answer, stay away. Quality formula companies are constantly testing their formulas to ensure the product’s safety. 

9. Check the expiration date of your baby formula

Every canister of infant formula will also have an expiration date or a “use by” date somewhere on the packaging. After this date has passed, don’t use the formula, even if it’s unopened. 

The use-by date protects your baby from changes in the ingredients that can happen over time. By feeding your baby expired formula, there’s a chance they won’t get the full serving of vitamins, nutrients and fats they need.

10. Figure out where your formula is made and if the formula is made in the USA

The manufacturing source of your infant formula also matters. If you’ve been tempted to buy European baby formula from a third-party seller, know that it isn’t regulated by the FDA—and isn’t approved for distribution in the U.S. That’s why US made and regulated companies are a much safer choice.

Every formula label is slightly different. Here’s what the Bobbie Organic Non GMO infant formula label tells us:

  • Blended in Vermont
  • FDA regulated
  • Certified USDA organic
  • Made with organic, pasture-raised milk
  • Features a European style recipe
  • Contains no palm oil
  • Doesn’t include syrup solids like corn syrup
  • Contains 100% lactose, which is the predominant carbohydrate in human milk
  • Has DHA levels that meet EU standards
  • Features a whey to casein ratio that matches breast milk and is more easily digested

The takeaway when reading a US infant formula label

Doing a little bit of research up front can help you rest easier when it comes to choosing your baby’s formula. Look into everything from where the formula was manufactured to the quality and source of the primary ingredients. Ultimately, the baby formula ingredient label should follow the makeup of human milk as closely as possible, which means lactose is the first ingredient and the whey/casein ratio is 60:40. Try to find an organic option if that’s doable for you, and when in doubt, consult your child’s pediatrician. 

Sources:

Understanding the USDA Organic Label | USDA 

European Baby Formula That Is Illegally Sold in the United States Carries Risks, Pediatricians Warn (Published 2020) | New York Times 

Infant Formula Labeling Guidance | FDA 

CLP Infant Formula & Baby Food Test | Clean Label Project 

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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