When a baby is nourished with infant formula rather than breast milk, there are a couple of ingredients and nutrients pediatricians recommend parents prioritize on the product label.
Highly Recommended Nutrients: Cow’s Milk Protein and Iron
Cow’s milk protein: Unless otherwise medically indicated, it’s generally recommended that a baby consume a standard cow’s milk protein-based formula. Lactose is the natural form of sugar found in breast milk that has a positive effect on both gut health and calcium absorption. Simply look for “milk-based powder” or “milk-based formula” on the product packaging.
Iron: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Nutrition also strongly advocates for formulas fortified with 4 to 12 milligrams of iron per liter to reduce risk of iron-deficiency anemia, which can impact brain development. The FDA requires that all formulas are fortified with 0.15 to 3 milligrams of iron per 100 calories of formula.
Nutrients With Limited Evidence
To more closely mimic the natural composition of breast milk, many baby formula manufacturers supplement their products with fatty acids like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). However, there’s little clinical evidence to indicate these nutrients when supplemented in baby formula benefit the health outcomes of infants.
“There’s just not a lot of evidence,” says Helen Hughes, M.D., a pediatrician in Baltimore and assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “It’s hard to conduct randomized control trials in babies to begin with, and these are generally healthy babies, so there’s not a lot of need from a research standpoint to study it. So with additives like DHA and ARA, which are now essentially in all formulas, there just isn’t a lot of evidence behind whether or not they’re needed.”
Many formulas also feature prebiotics commonly found in breast milk, such as human milk oligosaccharides (HMO), and probiotics with the goal of nurturing gut health and immune function. Early studies suggest probiotics can be helpful in healthy children experiencing acute viral gastroenteritis and other infections, and prebiotics can assist with softening stools, which may be beneficial for some infants. While the data is promising so far, more research is needed.
These additional nutrients certainly don’t hurt, experts and studies confirm. But these supplements do tend to raise the price of baby formula. Therefore, we considered them as part of the nutritional profile in our baby formula rankings but allotted them fewer points than highly recommended nutrients.
Is Baby Formula FDA-Regulated?
Since baby formula is a food product—and one that often serves as the single source of nutrition during an infant’s critical period of growth and development—it’s highly regulated by the FDA. Every baby formula product marketed in the U.S. must meet the FDA’s specific requirements regarding nutrition, labeling, manufacturing processes and quality control. Manufacturers must also notify the administration prior to marketing a new formula product.
This level of scrutiny ensures all U.S. baby formula products offer complete infant nutrition and are deemed generally safe for all babies, specific medical conditions notwithstanding. In other words, you can rest assured that every baby formula on supermarket shelves will give your infant the nutrients they need to thrive.