Many babies take formula at some time in their lives. Some begin their lives with formula if breastfeeding is not an option. So, what exactly is in infant formula? Understanding formula and the nutrients provided is important for parents, newborn care specialists and nannies.

In the US, commercial infant formulas are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are five main components to formula: carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. What makes one brand of formula different from the next are the specific carbohydrates and proteins (as well as any additional nutrients in smaller quantities).


What’s in Formula?

  1. Carbohydrates: Lactose is the main carbohydrate in both breast milk and formulas made from cow’s milk. Corn maltodextrin is sometimes used as a secondary source of carbohydrate in formula. Lactose-free, soy, and special formulas contain one or more of the following carbohydrates: sucrose, corn maltodextrin, modified cornstarch, or corn syrup solids.


  1. Proteins: Whey and casein are types of proteins. Breast milk contains about 60 percent whey and 40 percent casein. Most formulas have similar protein ratio. Others contain 100 percent whey. Soy formulas contain soy protein isolate – a processed soybean ingredient that is almost pure protein (at least 90 percent). Some brands use partially hydrolyzed soy protein (protein that is partially broken down) to allow for easier digestion.


  1. Fats: Formulas use a variety of oils to match the fat makeup of breast milk. They include soy oil, coconut oil, palm or palm olein oil, and high oleic sunflower oil. Although palm and palm olein oil are widely used, research has shown that these fats can reduce the absorption of fat and calcium. This would mean that the baby would not absorb as much fat and calcium as she would from a formula that doesn’t contain this oil. The FDA has approved the addition of two long-chain fatty acids to formula: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid), which are now standard ingredients in formula. Both of these substances are found in breast milk when the mother’s diet is adequate, and both are important for brain and vision development.


  1. Vitamins and Minerals: Most words on the ingredient label for formula describe vitamins and minerals. These words can be hard to figure out – for example, ferrous sulfate is iron, sodium ascorbate is vitamin C, and calcium pantothenate is vitamin B5. The AAP recommends that all healthy babies who aren’t breastfed exclusively be given iron-fortified formula until their first birthday. It’s important that babies receive the minimum recommended amount of iron (0.27 mg daily for infants 0 to 6 months; 11 mg daily for babies 7 to 12 months) to prevent iron-deficiency anemia.


What’s Added to Formula?

Manufacturers might vary in their formula recipes by a few ingredients including probiotics, prebiotics, dietary fiber, and amino acids.

  1. Probiotics: Some formulas add probiotics or the “good” bacteria that live in the gut. Probiotics give formula-fed babies the same bacteria that breastfed babies have, to keep their intestines healthier.


  1. Prebiotics: Some formulas have prebiotics, which are carbs that help the good bacteria stay and grow in the baby’s gut. Ask the doctor what the baby needs.


  1. Dietary Fiber: Soy fiber is added to soy formula for the temporary treatment of diarrhea in babies who are older than 6 months and in toddlers. The only formula currently available containing fiber is Similac Expert Care for Diarrhea, which is clinically shown to reduce the duration of diarrhea.


  1. Amino Acids: Amino acids such as taurine, methionine, and carnitine are added to soy formulas, and sometimes to cows milk formulas, to match the amino acids in breast milk.


As with any category of products, there are constantly new formulas coming into the market. Some are designed to reduce a child’s exposure to herbicides, pesticides and chemicals (Organic formulas). Formulas labeled “organic” must be certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some formulas claim to relieve problems such as colic or acid reflux. These formulas have a protein ratio similar to breast milk and vary slightly in composition from regular formula. Often, specialty formulas are substantially more expensive and not significantly different in key nutritional value. Hypoallergenic formulas are usually made with cow’s milk, they’re processed so that the allergy-causing protein is broken down in order to be more easily digestible for baby.


The FDA and AAP warn against using recipes to make homemade infant formula. Using homemade infant formula can lead to serious health problems for the baby. A baby’s nutritional needs are very specific, especially in the first year of life.


Nannies can learn more about advanced newborn care by enrolling in the Advanced Childcare Certification program at the Nanny Institute.