We’ve all heard the advice: “Breast is best.” Exclusively breastfeed until your baby is 1 year old. Nurse on demand. Formula is “poison.” For a few moms, that advice is easy to follow: they had a natural birth, had so much milk they could donate it, breastfeeding was pain-free, and their baby latched effortlessly. And while I wish it were that easy, unfortunately for many moms, it’s not.
Breastfeeding is HARD. Not hard as in “oh this is hard I don’t feel like doing it,” but hard as in: my baby won’t latch; I have low milk supply; my baby isn’t gaining weight; I physically can’t breastfeed because I have a health condition; my nipples are sore/bleeding/cracked/blistered; I’m in excruciating pain; I have no place to pump at work; I have mastitis; I’ve seen x# of lactation consultants and I’m still having problems nursing; etc.
Since I’ve had Layla, I’ve gotten a bunch of questions from new moms about breastfeeding, baby food, and what formulas – if any – are safe and healthy for their little ones. For me, nursing was one of the most physically and emotionally challenging parts of new motherhood. Many of the early days ended in tears over it. But because I had a decent supply (and I knew many moms who didn’t have enough/any milk at all), I decided to stick with it. It was difficult and challenging every day, but I nursed and pumped for the first 6 months, started weaning around 6.5 months and fully weaned by 7.5/8 months. There was no way I was going to make it to a year, and I was ok with that.
I know a lot of moms feel guilt over weaning early, or not being able to breastfeed as much a they’d like – but honestly, whatever makes you a better, happier mom is what you should do. If you love breastfeeding, great! But if you need to supplement or switch to formula, that’s ok too. The most important thing is the love you give to your baby, and that you and your baby are happy and healthy.
And so, since I knew I was going to need formula for Layla once I weaned, I did a ton of research trying to find the healthiest formula on the market today, and ended up finding a wonderful, healthy formula that I felt good about giving Layla (more on that in a sec!)
Disclaimers before we start:
** Organic formulas are more expensive than regular formula. I realize that not every parent has the financial means to buy organic formula for their little ones, and that is ok! If you don’t have the means, just do what you can for your baby. No judgments here.
** Not every baby likes every formula. Some formulas constipate some babies. Again, if you try the formulas I recommend and they don’t work for your baby – that’s ok too!
** I am advocating a world of no judgments when it comes to breastfeeding or formula feeding. All you can do as a mom is your best. Whether you breastfeed for a year, or 6 months or 1 month, or 0 months doesn’t make you a better or worse mother. A happy healthy mom and happy healthy baby is all that matters.
Now – here it is: a breakdown of all of the organic baby formulas on the market, and which ones are the best.
What I learned in my research is that the US doesn’t have very strict standards when it comes to organic baby formula. Ingredients that really shouldn’t be in baby formula appear all the time in many organic brands.
The ingredients that shouldn’t appear in organic formula (as outlined by the National Organic Standards Board and are banned in the EU) include:
1) Processed Refined Sugars (Syrup, Syrup Solids) – corn syrup (glucose syrup solids), maltodextrin (a partially hydrolyzed starch derived from corn, rice, or potatoes), sugar, or brown rice syrup. Manufacturers use these because they are cheaper than lactose (which is what should be in formula).
2) Synthetic DHA and ARA – DHA and ARA are naturally found in breastmilk, but the DHA and ARA added to formula are extracted from algae and fungus, often using hexane (a neurotoxic petroleum-based solvent). The National Organic Standards Board has guidelines against this, but the USDA still allows it in organic formulas sold in the US. The issue of hexane in formula is a complicated one — and I have more details about that below!
3) Synthetic Preservatives – ascorbic palmitate and beta carotene are the common ones here.
4) Synthetic Nutrients – this includes lutein, lycopene, nucleotides, taurine, l-carnitine and l-methionine. These are banned in formulas in the EU, but are allowed in the US (go figure). I won’t go into details on each nutrient listed above, but essentially – many are processed with neurotoxic solvents or are either themselves listed as a toxic ingredient.
Note: Palm Oil is in most formulas (EU & US), but it can form “soaps” in the baby’s intestines – which can cause digestive issues/gas/etc.
Unfortunately, almost every single formula in the US market has one or more of these ingredients included. Even the EU formulas have Palm Oil (but they have less of it than the US formulas, and so it doesn’t cause digestive issues). That being said, organic formula is still better than conventional formula – because at least organic formula is made with non-GMO ingredients and the milk used is hormone free.
So what’s a mom to do? Order your formula online from the EU if you can! Hipp Organic and Holle are the two best infant formulas out there.
Hipp Organic and Holle Organic are two brands from the EU that have wonderful ingredient lists for their formulas. HiPP is the best, in my opinion and Holle is a close second. I used HiPP for Layla, and it worked great for us.
To buy either HiPP or Holle online, I have found a couple online retailers who are both based in the US and ship to the US (that way you don’t have to worry about international shipping costs or exchange rates!)
Update 5/26/17: As of this week, all of the US based sellers of HiPP, Holle and Lebenswert are being targeted by the FDA (who is essentially trying to limit the choices we have for formula for our little ones! They don’t want US based sellers selling European formula – it’s illogical and terrible and I hope the sellers below figure out a way around this soon!). In the meantime, many of the links below may not work temporarily, but if you have purchased from one of these sellers before you should be able to repurchase formula as they are still allowed to sell to existing customers.
Because of this recent development, I have found an amazing, reputable, online retailer based in the EU: Organic Baby Food – who can ship to the US for free! They sell HiPP, Lebenswert, and Holle, along with Hypoallergenic formula and Goat’s Milk formula. They have reasonable prices, reliable shipping (within 1-3 business days!), amazing customer support and I have been in contact with the owner personally. In addition to baby formula they also have a variety of organic cereals and snacks for babies from HiPP/Holle/Leb, as well as a line of baby care products (shampoo, lotion, calendula) that are gentle and free of any synthetic ingredients so they are perfect for babies! They are also giving readers of The Picky Eater a 10% off coupon code at checkout – just use the code: PICKY and you will get the discount!
Also, My #1 recommended US-based online retailer for HiPP, Holle, and Lebenswert is: Organic Munchkin. Once these FDA issues get cleared up, I’d highly recommend them for new customers (and if you are an existing customer you can still order from them!) They are based in NY, have reasonable prices, and always have formula in stock! They have a really great hypoallergenic formula option from HiPP for babies who have cow milk protein allergies or trouble digesting lactose. They also have Goat’s Milk formula options, and they are the only seller of Topfer in the US (which is a new formula from Germany that has ingredients very aligned with HiPP and Leb!) AND they sell Dutch based HiPP which has the best ingredients out of the HiPP versions (vs. HiPP UK and HiPP Germany).
One other retailer based in the US for HiPP, Holle, and Lebenswert is: MyOrganicFormula. For babies with allergies, MyOrganicFormula has a list of allergy-friendly formulas as well, and they also sell BabyLove (see update at the bottom of this post).
Here is a chart of the organic baby formulas out there, outlining which have the ingredients above. The chart is ranked from best to worst formula. At the top of the chart I’ve included a hypothetical line for the “ideal” formula – so you have something to measure all of the other formulas against.
Note: I update this post frequently – this chart is as of June 2017. All updates are listed in detail (by date) below the chart as well!
The Bottom Line:
** There is no perfect formula, but some are still much better than others.
** Baby’s Only with Whey is probably the best in the US (that you can buy at your local grocery store)
** If you can afford it, shipping your formula from Europe is the absolute best way to go, and HiPP or Lebenswert are the best formulas out there!
** Regarding Hexane-extracted DHA and ARA, I have gotten confirmation that both HiPP and Topfer use hexane-extracted DHA/ARA – but they both claim that 100% of the hexane is removed after extraction and it is not detectable in their formulas. Given that these are European formulas and the guidelines in Europe are much more stringent than the US guidelines, I’m inclined to believe them.
** Regarding GrassFed and PureBliss – they are not organic formulas, but they are non GMO and antibiotic free, and their ingredients list is relatively clean, which is why I have added them at the bottom here as they are available in the US and are better than all of the non-organic formulas available in the US today. More details on how they can be non GMO and grass fed but NOT organic are below in the 4/6/17 Update!
More Info on Hexane Extracted DHA/ARA in Formula:
I spoke with an expert who has her BS in Biology with a minor in Chemistry, who worked in an organic chemistry lab for 2 years and worked with many solvents used in extractions, compound purification, and analysis, and then went on to get an MS in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She is extremely knowledgable when it comes to hexane and extraction methods, so I asked her for her thoughts on how concerned we should be about hexane-extracted DHA/ARA in formula. Here is the summary:
- Hexane is often used as extraction solvent for extracting fats. This is because it has a low boiling point when compared to most fats, which makes it easy to get rid of post-extraction – leaving the fat behind.
- To get rid of Hexane, chemists use a large apparatus called a “rotary vap” that gets rid of the solvents and you end up with a pure powder substance (usually a chemical compound). The next step is to check the purity of the compound using a machine called an NMR or MS, which tells you whether you have any of your solvent left.
- This woman told me that she never, ever found an issue with having hexane still present after drying her sample.
- Since formulas are a powder, they are heated to the point of water removal, and therefore the hexane should be all gone. It is unlikely that hexane is left in properly treated formula, but you are placing trust in the formula and manufacturing industry that all formula is being properly prepared.
- Note: All oils that don’t have a cold-pressed process are extracted using hexane – this includes corn oil, soy oil, vegetable oil, etc. (unless otherwise specified on the bottle). Hexane is also used during the development process for drugs – many drugs are purified in a hexane solvent and then it is dried off. So if you are going to question hexane, you need to be aware of the other areas where it is used in our regular food and drug supply!
- When it comes to being concerned about hexane vs. other questionable ingredients in organic formulas – maltodextrin, soy oil, etc., I’d be more concerned about maltodextrin vs. hexane extracted DHA. This is because maltodextrin’s glycemic index is much higher than table sugar and I personally believe a lot of issues today come from sugar and inflammation, and even when hexane is used it should be gone by the time the formula is packaged.
- Unfortunately, there is no formula out there that doesn’t have at least one of the “offending” ingredients I have listed above! For me personally, I would choose hexane-extracted DHA over maltodextrin or soy oil for example. This is because soy oil is also extracted using hexane, and maltodextrin has an extremely high glycemic index. In addition, formulas that contain soy oil or maltodextrin are 100% guaranteed to contain these ingredients, versus hexane which is likely not traceable in a formula that has used it as a method to extract DHA/ARA before the formula has been prepared!
Detailed Updates by Date Below!
Update as of 3/15/15: The Honest Company just came out with an Organic Baby Formula – that, in my opinion, is now the best option for an Organic formula made in the US. The first two ingredients in the formula are similar to HiPP (Organic Non Fat Milk, Organic Lactose) — but then the third ingredient is “Organic Glucose Syrup Solids,” which is not great but still better than Baby’s Only (which has “brown rice syrup” as the first ingredient). The Honest Co. formula is still not better than Holle or HiPP, but is better than all of the other US formulas out there.
Update as of 5/25/15: Baby’s Only just came out with a Whey Protein Formula that now is probably the best option for an Organic formula in the US. Nutritionally, it seems much better than the original Baby’s Only formula with brown rice syrup. Some things to note: 1) It looks like the nucleotides in this formula aren’t added synthetically – that Baby’s Only just discloses that all milk proteins have naturally occurring nucleotides – in which case that seems ok. 2) They do have organic soybean oil and soy lecithin in their formula 3) They don’t have palm oil (like HiPP does) in the formula or glucose syrup solids (like the Honest Company’s formula) which is great. This makes Baby’s Only with Whey a pretty great option – and might be the best option in the US since it doesn’t have glucose syrup solids like the Honest Company’s formula does. Between HiPP, Holle and Baby’s Only with Whey, it’s a bit of a toss up between whether you’d rather have soybean oil or palm oil in your baby’s formula. I might still go with Hipp or Holle first, and then Baby’s Only with Whey Protein, and then the Honest Company’s formula in the US. Note: Holle also has a new formula called Lebenswert – which doesn’t have maltodextrin (for stage 1; it does for stage 2/3).
Update as of 3/31/16: Plum Organics just released a formula which is a great option for Organic formula in the US! It doesn’t have any syrup solids (yay!) and it has a combination of 4 oils (coconut and high oleic sunflower – which are great; and palm/soybean oil – not as great). Between Plum Organics and Baby’s Only with Whey – I think they are both great options for a formula you can purchase in the US. Baby’s Only with Whey might be slightly better because they don’t have palm oil, but honestly I’d say they are pretty comparable.
Update as of 4/30/16: Honest Co. is being sued because their formula contains Taurine and other ingredients that really shouldn’t be in organic formula. The problem is, those ingredients are considered OK by the FDA and the same ingredients are in many of the organic formulas available in the US (like Earth’s Best and Baby’s Only with Brown Rice Syrup)! That’s why I recommend the European formulas over any formula in the US – the EU formulas have the cleanest list of ingredients by far. I hope the FDA changes their standards on what ingredients are considered acceptable for organic formulas – depending on how the suit turns out I’ll update this list accordingly!
Update as of 6/21/16: I just found out about a German formula available in the US called “BabyLove“. The ingredients look great, are really in line with HiPP and Holle – and are a great option for your baby! The only ingredient on their list that I’m not sure about is “sweet whey powder” – I’m not sure if that is lactose, or if that’s added sugars. The company claims that their formula has no added sugars, but I haven’t found any more information than that. Either way, the rest of the ingredients look pretty comparable to HiPP or Holle so I’m adding it as a #3 option for your little one!
Update as of 7/23/16: HiPP UK has changed its ingredients for its Stage 2 formulas (they now include soy). BUT – the Dutch version of HiPP still has high quality ingredients and no soy. Also, a new formula called Topfer just came out, you can see the ingredients here and their ingredients are very comparable to HiPP or Holle Leb! I’d definitely recommend their formula!
Update as of 11/4/16: Earth’s Best has recently changed the ingredients in their formula — they no longer use syrup solids as the sugar! Now they use lactose. That’s definitely an improvement! They still have palm oil, taurine, etc. on their ingredients list but getting rid of the syrup solids is a big plus.
Update as of 1/10/17: Regarding hexane extracted DHA in formula – this is what I’ve found to be true: Baby’s Only with Whey Protein has confirmed that the DHA in their formula is NOT extracted using hexane. As for the DHA in HiPP, their company statement says: “HiPP Infant milks use natural sources of DHA and ARA, derived from fish oils.” Also, MyOrganicMunchkin has certified that “HiPP does not use chemicals like hexane anywhere in their formula making process.”
Update as of 4/6/17: There are a few new formulas coming out (or that have just come out!) Happy Baby in the US, PureBliss by Similac, and GrassFed by Munchkin. HappyBaby is a decent option in the US – I’d rank it after Regular Holle (the chart above is updated!). GrassFed and PureBliss both have decent ingredients (the only “offending” ingredients are Soy Oil and Taurine) but they are not certified organic. Both say that their formulas are made with 100% Grass Fed Cow Milk, have no antibiotics and are non GMO – but they are not organic. This is likely because in some capacity, >5% of their ingredients by mass were not sourced-organic. Also, you can feed cows grass that has been sprayed with non-organic pesticides and it’s still considered “grass fed” but it wouldn’t be considered organic. They mention that the cows are GMO, rBGH and antibiotic free, but do not address the grass itself, so that might be another reason why it’s not organic. I have kept them on the list at the bottom because their ingredients are pretty good (you can read about GrassFed’s ingredients here), and are better than some of the other formulas in the US that are on the market today, but they can’t be considered “organic formulas.”
The Ranking As of April 2017:
#1 | HiPP (prefer the Dutch version of HiPP) or Holle Lebenswert
#2 | Baby’s Only with Whey Protein
#4 | Happy Baby or Plum Organics
#5 | Earth’s Best
#6 | Baby’s Only with Brown Rice Syrup
… and then the rest of the list!