Advances in Baby Formula


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Someone is finally trying.

Four years ago I was shopping for baby formula. I was horrified to discover that most formulas were mostly fructose and soybean oil. Including the fancy ‘organic’ ones. Humans digest fructose hepatically, and overconsumption of fructose has been implicated in a variety of modern health problems including diabetes and atherosclerosis. Why would we feed it to our babies as their primary sugar?

Oh right. It’s super cheap.

Soybean oil is a plant oil high in polyunsaturated fats and low in saturated fats. It and other high omega-6 oils have been implicated in numerous health problems. It is notoriously the only fat found in the tpn (intravenous) formulation given to infants, which causes liver failure and death. The FDA will not approve a tpn with the appropriate fat contents to keep infants alive, sparking outrage. Why would we feed our babies soybean oil instead of milk fat? It was pointed out to me that this was probably related to shelf-stability of the fat in question. Milk fat likely spoils faster.

Plus, soybean oil is cheap. As is fructose. And made with 'organic' vegetables…

So, I sprang for the premium formula which contained lactose instead of fructose, but still was mostly soybean oil.

Four years later, I am pleasantly surprised by the rise of much more sophisticated baby formulas. Enfamil Enspire, and it looks like some other formulas, have added a more complex mix of sugars and fats. The primary sugar is still lactose, but in addition there are galactooligosaccharides and polydextrose. These prebiotic sugars pass through the stomach undigested, but serve as a food source for bacteria in the gut and slowly release sugar as they are digested there. They are thought to lead to healthier gut bacteria and more stable blood sugar.

The primary fat is still a vegetable oil blend (still high in omega 6’s), but it now contains coconut oil which is high in saturated fat. Some milk fat has been added and supplemented with omega 3s DHA and ARA. One of the newest advancements is the addition of MFGM (milkfat globule membrane), which is a mix of gangliosides and phospholipids thought to play an important part in cognitive development. If you’ve spent any time studying or researching weird Ashkenazi recessive mutations, you’ll know that many of them are mutations in brain lipid metaboloism including: Nieman-Pick’s, Fabry’s, Tay Sach’s, Krabbe’s, and Gaucher’s diseases. It has long been hypothesized that having a single copy of these traits is related to higher IQ in the Ashkenazi population, even if having two can be fatal. Suffers of Gaucher’s disease are disproportionately represented in engineering and mathematics. In any case, you want to have good brain lipids. Let’s put them in formula.

Is the exact mix of components now used in these new formulas the best we can do with our knowledge and tech level? No. But it is a vast and obvious improvement over the previous formulas of fructose and soybean oil.

Why did it take this long, and why am I so surprised that we have it? I’m a cynic. I had assumed that formula was the way it was because of some regulations somewhere, and that companies didn’t want to deal with making changes. Children are too important to learn about, etc. Maybe this was true and demand finally got so loud that it was finally worth the extra cost and effort. When I think about the state of nutrition science twenty years ago, it’s unsurprising that formula looked the way it did. It takes time for a culture to shift as well. The people who cared most about what their babies were eating went crazy with demanding that everyone breast feed (no matter what the practical reality of your circumstance was). Breastfeeding became a moral imperative and breastmilk a sacred symbol of MotherLove, which could never be replicated in a food science lab.

What will the outcomes with the new formula be? We will probably *never* know. Children are too important to learn about. We don’t even have a good way of comparing formula to breast milk. Everything is confounded. Nothing is controlled. The best we can say right now is at least we know the outcomes on the old formula were only as bad as they are. That is to say, we are still uncertain if it was worse than breast milk, and therefore it must be at least mostly fine. In any case, I’m buying the new stuff.