Healthy Baby Formula Update

(First, read this disclosure.)

In 2013, I wrote a guest post for Dr. Lipman’s website that provided guidance on choosing the healthiest infant formula for your baby. We all know that breastmilk is better, but the fact remains that many conscientious mothers are looking for safe, natural, organic formula for their infants. With an ever-growing number of organic formula options, my private clients were increasingly confused about which was best choice, and I wanted to supply them with some clear guidelines for choosing the best formula possible.

The advice I have in that post could be summarized as follows:

  1. Buy organic formula.
  2. Avoid soy-based formula unless your baby cannot tolerate dairy.
  3. Don’t choose a formula with added DHA or ARA unless the company specifies that they weren’t extracted with hexane.
  4. Avoid formula that contains palm oil (may cause decreased bone density) or carrageenan (possible carcinogen).
  5. Choose formulas with minimal synthetic nutrients (such as lutein and lycopene).
  6. Avoid formulas with too much or the wrong kinds of sugar (lactose is the best; corn syrup is the worst).
  7. Whichever formula you choose, filter the water you use to make it.

So Which Organic Formulas Are Healthiest?

As I mentioned in the 2013 post, no formula on the market will meet all the criteria above, so the best you can do is to select a formula that has less of the bad stuff and more of the good. In 2013, I could only recommend one brand of formula, which is Baby’s Only (made by Nature’s One). I still think this is a good option for many parents.

Since writing that post, however, a few new formulas have come onto the market, and I have also learned of some European brands that are somewhat difficult and expensive to obtain, but still worth looking into. Here are the new formulas I’ve discovered, and what I think of them:

    • Baby’s Only (by Nature’s One) has a new whey formula on the market that is better than their original, mostly because it does not contain brown rice syrup.A little background: Baby’s Only original formula is sweetened with both lactose and brown rice syrup, the latter of which has been found to contain unsafe levels of arsenic. Nature’s One created a filter to remove inorganic arsenic from their brown rice syrup, reducing it to undetectable levels. Still, I think sweetening formula with just lactose (which more closely mimics breast milk) is a better bet, which is why I am a fan of Baby’s Only with whey.

      Another thing I like about Nature’s One: they use a non-hexane method of extracting their DHA and ARA. On the negative side, Baby’s Only formula does contain some synthetic ingredients, such as nucleotides and taurine, as well as some soy.

      All Baby’s Only formulas are called a “toddler formula,” but Nature’s One claims this is because they believe babies should be breastfed for at least the first year of life. You’ll want to run it by your pediatrician if your baby is under a year old.

  • If you want to explore European formulas, HiPP, Holle, and Lebenswert are the ones I recommend. They have fewer ingredients than the formulas produced in the U.S.; they are organic (and in some cases biodynamic); their dairy content is from grass-fed cows; they contain higher quality sugars; and they don’t contain carrageenan or corn syrup. Several clients have told me that their babies’ poop goes back to looking like that of a breastfed infant when they are given these European formulas, which certainly seems like a good sign!If you want help choosing a European formula, I wrote about the pros and cons of the various brands here. Finding a reputable source to purchase these formulas is another challenge (some of my clients buy European formula on eBay, and others are definitely not comfortable going this route). I wrote more about where to buy HiPP, Holle, and Lebenswert here. Please note that HiPP, Holle, and Lebenswert are not FDA approved, so you should ask your pediatrician to check out the ingredients if you are concerned.
  • The Honest Company brought an infant formula to market earlier this year, and there are some great things about it: it contains lactose as a sweetener, has a shorter ingredients list than most conventional formulas, uses hexane-free fish oil for DHA, and is free of carrageenan. Unfortunately, Honest formula does contain some corn syrup (“glucose syrup solids”), palm oil, soy, and a few not-so-great preservatives.Bottom line: If you don’t want to buy an imported European formula and don’t like that Baby’s Only is technically for toddlers, Honest formula is my top recommendation for you.

Which Formula Is #1?

Since many of you ask me what I would do if it were my own child, here is my ranking of the formulas mentioned above, from best to worst: Lebenswert Stage 1, Holle, HiPP, Baby’s Only with whey, Baby’s Only original (dairy, not soy), and then Honest Company. Of course, I believe that even the ones at the end of this list are vastly superior to any conventional—or even other organic—formula currently on the market.

Maia James is the founder and president of Gimme the Good Stuff, Inc., a free online resource that gives busy moms peace of mind by helping them easily navigate the confusing world of "natural" products. Maia also works as a consultant, helping conscious moms make their homes greener and safer. Maia lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.