Unhealthy Ingredients in Commercial Baby Food (and Better Options)

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Picture of a baby with commercial baby food formulaNutrition is so important in the first years of life.

Seeing the advertisements, it appears that a wide range of companies is making nutritious, health-promoting baby food.

However, this isn’t fully accurate.

In fact, many of the ingredients in commercial baby food are ultra-processed, with links to a variety of health problems.

Furthermore, some of these foods contain contaminants such as heavy metals and pesticides.

This article will first look at the negative side of commercial baby foods — firstly baby jar foods and then baby formula.

Following this, the article will examine some healthier options.

Baby Food and Nutrient Density 

There are several problems regarding commercial baby food.

First of all, here is a look at the nutritional values.

  • A study comparing all 479 commercially available baby foods in the UK found that 65% are sweetened. 79% of these foods were spoonable baby jar foods, but similar homemade foods had more than double the nutrients. The researchers concluded that the majority of the products “do not serve the intended purpose” of providing nutritious meals to infants (1).
  • A recent study on the entire commercial baby food range in the US shows that “the vast majority” of products contain added sugar (2).
  • Commercial baby foods “mainly consist of sweet fruits and vegetables” like mango, banana, and sweet potatoes. As a result, they are “unlikely to encourage a preference for bitter tasting vegetables or non-sweet food” (3).
  • In Australia, 29% of baby foods contain synthetic vitamins and minerals. The “vast majority are fruit-based products,” and they “have relatively high sugar content” (4).

The Impact of Sweet Taste Perception

Picture of baby jar foods high in sugar

To be honest, the fact that commercial baby food is lacking in nutritional value isn’t surprising.

Homemade foods incorporating fresh ingredients are much more likely to provide beneficial nutrients than processed mixes.

These commercial baby foods also primarily focus on sweet taste.

And unfortunately, this emphasis on sweet-tasting foods can have an adverse effect in future life.

From the time we are born, the foods we eat shape our taste preferences.

In other words, the more sugary food a child eats, the more they will favor it as they grow up (5, 6).

In the modern world, children already have enough dietary pitfalls to avoid without being trained to prefer a sweet taste.

Key Point: Babies need double the amount of commercial baby food to get the same nutrients as homemade food. Store bought food also contains excessive amounts of sugar.

Harmful Ingredients in Baby Jar Foods

Have you seen how much a jar of baby food costs?

Given the price, you’d expect them to be full of the very best quality ingredients.

Conversely, commercial baby jar foods often contain sketchy ingredients that are harmful to health.

Picture of industrial vegetable oil - sometimes found in commercial baby foods.Industrial Vegetable Oils

Yes, the same stuff that’s used by the fast food industry to cook fries is also in many baby jar foods.

The oil of choice in these products is canola oil, which is an ultra-processed industrial oil.

In the first place, the manufacturing process to make this oil is extremely harsh and uses solvents, deodorizers, and even bleach.

Secondly, the extreme heat the production process uses often damages any beneficial nutrients in the oil.

Sugar

As mentioned earlier, sugar is prevalent in jars of baby food.Picture showing the sugar content in baby food jars.

Seeing sugar on the back of a jar isn’t so surprising, but it’s shocking to see how much some brands contain.

For example, look at the baby food on the right. Apparently, it has “no added sugar.”

However, if you look at the ingredients you can see a combination of grape juice concentrate, peach concentrate, more grape concentrate, and then a bunch of thickeners (flour) and preservatives.

In other words, this whole jar is full of carbs (total: 35g) and sugar (25g) and little else. The product is 100% fat-free and contains only 2g protein.

All in all, it’s not real food. It is fruit juice concentrate mixed with flour.

Refined Sugar and Children’s Health

In recent years, the food industry’s message that sugar is a positive source of energy for children is on its death bed.

Sugar is an entirely non-essential ingredient that has negative health impacts.

For instance, a 2015 study on children with obesity found that taking sugar out of the diet (while keeping calories the same) led to significant decreases in blood sugar, insulin, triglycerides, and blood pressure — in only nine days (7).

Picture showing the effects of dietary sugar on child health markers
(Source)
Key Point: The majority of baby food jars contain extremely sweet mixes, with many having added sugar and some using vegetable oils.

Make Your Own!

Instead of paying a premium price for a mixture of grape and pineapple concentrates, it is easy to make a spoonable baby food at home.

Sure, it’s a little more time-consuming, but there are no mystery ingredients, and you can avoid all the additives, preservatives, and possible contaminants.

First of all, using an electronic baby food maker makes it simple.

With this, you can puree any number of nutritious foods to make a variety of spoonable feeds.

For some great ideas, the Paleo Mom has a handy table with ingredient ideas and at what age to introduce each food.

Baby Formula

Note: Not all mothers can breastfeed, and formula can play a role in this situation. But there is a clear difference between a healthy formula and some of the poorer choices.

Out of all commercial baby food, some formula products contain relatively unhealthy ingredients.

In fact, it’s not unusual to see ingredients such as;

  • Industrial vegetable oils
  • Sugar and corn syrup (in vast quantities)
  • Preservatives
  • Emulsifiers/thickeners
  • Refined flours

To demonstrate this, here is a look at one of the available products.

Similac Soy Powder Formula

Picture showing unhealthy commercial baby food - formula ingredients

Admittedly, this is a soy formula, so it purposefully doesn’t include milk.

In other words: this is specifically designed for babies who have allergies or sensitivities to cows milk.

However, just take a look at the ingredients, and you can see that the majority of this product is sugar and oil; 76% to be precise.

A further 14% is soy protein, and then the remaining 10% is a mixture of preservatives and vitamins and minerals.

Note: In rare cases where a baby has lactose intolerance, then formulas using corn syrup or brown rice syrup alongside soy protein become necessary. However, you can certainly find these formulas without additional added sugar and soybean oil.

Corn Syrup and Sugar = 49%

The primary ingredient of this product is corn syrup, which represents 39% of the product by weight.

Next, sugar accounts for a further 10%.

Simple sugars are necessary for babies — the fact that breast milk is about 40% sugar (lactose) is a good indication of this.

However, this refined sugar, usually made from GMO corn and sugar cane, provides glucose and fructose rather than lactose.

Various Oils = 27%

Aside from the sugar, the next major ingredient in this formula is vegetable oil — there are three different kinds;

  • Coconut oil
  • High-oleic safflower oil
  • Soybean oil

While coconut oil is no problem, soybean oil has a host of negative studies behind it.

In a 2015 study, soybean oil was found to be “more obesogenic and diabetogenic” than fructose (9).

Unfortunately, soybean oil has an extremely harsh industrial production process. It is in almost all processed food—and it’s in many commercial baby food formulas too.

Regarding high oleic safflower oil, this oil is probably health neutral. It is still an ultra-processed oil and processing mostly strips it of its beneficial components. There are certainly better oils around.

However, high-oleic vegetable oils are much more stable against oxidation than their regular counterparts and contain a healthier fatty acid profile.

Key Point: Many commercial formulas use unhealthy ingredients like sugar and soybean oil. Naturally occurring lactose in whole milk and added sugar are not the same thing.

Commercial Baby Food is “Scandalous

The Weston A. Price Foundation call most baby formulas “scandalous” for some of the following reasons:

  • Baby and infant formulas available at retail have no FDA regulation.
  • Harmful contaminants such as rocket fuel and heavy metals have been found in baby foods. A study shows that infants who exclusively feed on formula have a 7.5x higher urinary arsenic level than breastfed babies (10).
  • Synthetic additives in commercial baby food can be problematic, such as laboratory-made folic acid.
  • Infant formula often features genetically modified (GMO) sugar and refined vegetable oil. Despite being non-GMO, organic products tend to have the same ingredients.
  • High-heat processing damages the formula which results in the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). In fact, commercial infant formulas have a “70-fold higher level of a major AGE than human breast milk” (11, 12, 13).
  • Many organic baby food formulas contain brown rice syrup. Following concerns over the potential arsenic contamination of rice, a study showed that using brown rice syrup “may introduce significant concentrations of arsenic” into the diet. Given that babies eat the same formula several times per day, this is a cause for concern (14).
  • Pesticides and even veterinary drugs have been found in commercial baby foods. Also, pesticide residues are present in over 60% of those foods available at retail in Spain and the UK (15, 16)
Key Point: Commercial baby food formulas have been found to contain pesticides, AGES, and drug residues.

Breastfed Babies Are Healthier

Picture of a baby being breastfed

First of all, for mothers who can — breastfeeding is always the healthier choice compared to a processed formula.

Studies show that individuals who feed on mother’s milk as a baby enjoy better health and improvements in lifelong immunity.

Research also indicates that there is an association between breastfeeding and protection against obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease in later life (17, 18, 19).

However, for mom’s unable to nurse their baby, there are still healthy options available.

Key Point: A wealth of studies show that breastfeeding offers both short and long-term benefits. If possible, it should be the default choice for a baby.

Wholesome Baby Formula: Healthier Options

It is easy to complain about poor quality baby food formulas. But this isn’t very helpful if we don’t know how to find healthier options.

So, here is a look at some better choices that we can either buy or make ourselves.

Commercial Baby Food Formula – Nanny Care Infant 1

Picture of Nanny Care - one of the healthier commercial baby food formulas

This formula from Nanny Care is not perfect, but it has a much healthier ingredient profile than the usual commercial offering.

First of all, there is no soybean oil, and it is entirely free of added sugar, soy, and corn syrup.

Here is a look at the ingredients.

Goat Milk Solids

The main ingredient is goat milk solids.

Experts believe goat milk to be a closer match to human breast milk than cows milk. Additionally, studies show it to be more digestible and less allergenic (20).

Approximately 7% of all babies have an allergy specifically to cow milk protein, making goat milk a viable alternative.

Vegetable Oils – High-oleic Sunflower, Rapeseed, Sunflower

There are no commercially available baby food formulas without vegetable oils. High oleic sunflower oil is one of the healthier oils, and at least there is no soybean oil in this product.

Other Ingredients

Other ingredients in the formula include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and preservatives (citric acid and a vitamin E-based antioxidant).

Overall, the ingredient profile is much cleaner than the vast majority of products on the market.

Let’s compare the first seven ingredients to the soy formula we looked at earlier;

Nanny Care First Infant Milk Similac Soy Powder Formula
Pasteurized goat milk solids  Corn syrup solids
Lactose (from milk)  Soy protein isolate
High oleic sunflower oil  High oleic safflower oil
Rapeseed oil  Sugar
Sunflower oil  Soybean oil
Minerals  Coconut oil
Vitamins  C. cohni oil

For me, the first five ingredients are key; breast milk naturally contains whole milk—not corn syrup. And sugar and soybean oil are two of the unhealthiest ingredients in the whole food chain.

Is Homemade Formula Healthy?

Some people suggest that rather than buying a commercial formula, the best option is to buy healthy ingredients and make it ourselves.

I understand that this is time-consuming, and it’s also not “approved” like formulas on store shelves have to be.

It’s certainly not for everyone, but it might be worth investigating.

Homemade Formula Recipe – Ingredients

This homemade baby formula is from Sally Fallon at the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Human breast milk is approximately 40% carbohydrate and 50% fat. This recipe is specifically designed to mimic the natural nutrient profile of a mother’s breastmilk.

2 cups raw cow’s milk (preferably pasture raised cows) ¼ cup homemade liquid whey
4 tablespoons of lactose ¼ teaspoon of bifidobacterium infantis
2 or more tablespoons of cream that ideally isn’t ultrapasteurized ½ teaspoon of high-vitamin cod liver oil or 1 teaspoon of regular cod liver oil
1 teaspoon of expeller-pressed sunflower oil 1 teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons of gelatin 2 teaspoons of frontier nutritional yeast flakes
1-⅞ cups of filtered water ¼ teaspoon of acerola powder
2 teaspoons of coconut oil 2 teaspoons of frontier nutritional yeast flakes

Is it Safe to Give Raw Milk?

This is something that is controversial and, ultimately, a decision that only a parent can make.

This is the Weston A Price Foundations take:

Picture showing details on a homemade formula - is raw milk safe?

You can also read an FAQ on their website covering safety aspects here.

Instructions to Make

  • Put 2 cups of filtered water into a measuring pitcher and remove 2 teaspoons, this will leave approximately 1 and ⅞ cups water.
  • Pour about half of the water into a pan and place on a medium flame.
  • Add the gelatin and lactose to the pan, let them dissolve and stir occasionally.
  • After dissolving the gelatin and lactose, remove from heat and add the remaining water to cool the mixture.
  • Stir in the coconut oil and optional high-vitamin butter oil and stir until melted.
  • Meanwhile, place the remaining ingredients into a blender.
  • Add the water mixture and blend for abut three seconds.
  • Place the finished mixture in glass bottles or a glass jar and refrigerate.
  • Before giving to a baby, warm the bottles by placing them in hot water.

Watch the Video

To demonstrate how to make this formula, here is a video tutorial from the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Key Point: It is possible to make homemade baby formulas that closely mimic the profile of human breast milk. However, this can be time-consuming and is a decision to take seriously.

Final Thoughts

Some of the products and recipes covered here may help give children a more nutritious start to life.

And in regard to baby formula, there are many different available options.

But whichever options you choose, it’s important to carefully research and discuss with your pediatrician.

It’s okay to research different options, but for something so important it is best to run it by an expert.

Nutrition is always important in life, and never more so than for a small baby.

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Similac Soy Powder Formula is designed for babies with lactose intolerance and it is not as implied by this article representative of the most common baby formulas which are designed to more closely emulate human milk.
    Although commercial formulas certainly could be better designed, it is disingenuous to use a product designed for a minority of babies with a specific digestive issue as an example of all formulas made by large companies and then comparing it to a goat milk alternative which contains lactose. Exaggeration is not the way to be taken seriously if we want to educate people on better nutrition and health.

    • Kurt,

      I certainly wasn’t implying the soy formula is representative of all formulas.

      For example;

      “Admittedly, this is a soy formula, so it purposefully doesn’t include milk lactose.”

      “But there is a clear difference between a healthy formula and some of the poorer choices.”

      I will add an additional note in there to make it 100% clear.

      I do think that formula plays an important role, but there’s a big difference between the different brands.

      Even if we compare the soy formula to other soy formulas – others don’t feel the need to add extra sugar on top of the corn syrup. And it is very uncommon to see soybean oil in EU formulas also.

      The reason for comparing it to the goat milk alternative is that a significant number of babies are using soy formulas because of an allergy to cow milk protein. This allergy occurs in approximately 7% of all babies and is more prevalent than lactose intolerance. Despite occasional cases of cross-reactivity, goat milk is fine for many of these babies, making it a viable alternative.

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