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Is organic formula worth the cost?

Published on: December 01, 2008

Baby and bottleMost experts agree: Breast milk is best. So when our first child was born, we had the breast pump ready, along with nursing bras and a supply of nursing pads to stop embarrassing leaks. But it soon became clear those would not be needed: No matter what I tried, I simply did not produce enough milk.

Finally, our doctor ordered us to start supplementing with formula. Faced with a dizzying array of choices, we ultimately decided on organic. Though harder to find and more expensive, we went the extra mile for organic, assuming it was better.

Now, with our second child on the way, we wonder: Were we right?

Infant formula is big business, with one estimate placing the market at about $2.5 billion annually. The $20 million that went toward organic formula in 2007 may seem paltry in comparison, but the market is growing rapidly. A study last spring found a nearly tenfold growth in sales of organic formula from 2005 to 2007. This growth is significant, at least to consumers, who shell out an average of 35 percent more for “organic” formula.

Surprisingly, there is no analysis or empirical research available yet to prove whether organic formula is really better for babies. Indeed, says Dr. Susan Altemeier, a pediatrician at the Swedish Physicians Children’s Clinic in Seattle, the only study she was able to find even close to the topic related to whether there was pesticide residue in non-organic baby food, not formula.

What does ‘organic’ mean?

The lack of research may stem from the relative newness of the market — and its regulation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) standards regarding organics only became effective and mandatory in October 2002. Under these standards, a product has to be made with no antibiotics, synthetic hormones or unapproved synthetic pesticides, among other requirements, to be deemed “organic.” But only 95 percent of a product needs to meet those standards to earn the USDA seal, and critics have raised questions about the agency’s lackluster handling of complaints of potential violations.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the task of regulating the formula market overall. But it does not “approve” formulas. Instead, it simply mandates that formulas meet certain nutrient requirements and that manufacturers keep certain records and submit to facility inspections.

This regulation — or lack thereof — appears to leave it primarily up to outsiders to raise questions, as happened recently when The New York Times reported concerns about the sugar content of Similac Organic formula. Last May, the Times reported that the formula, which captured 36 percent of the organic market in 2007, was “significantly sweeter” than other formulas and sweetened with sucrose, which the Times theorized can harm tooth enamel faster than other sugars and possibly cause overeating. Some commentators have questioned those conclusions, however, noting that the FDA considers sucrose to be an appropriate sweetener because it is easily digested and absorbed by infants, and that some studies indicate that the type of formula fed in infancy doesn’t affect “sweet” preference later or the volume an infant will consume.

Another recently raised concern affects all formulas, not just organic. Most parents are now aware of the controversies surrounding bisphenol-A (BPA) in common plastics, but some studies indicate that BPA is also an issue for baby formulas. Last spring, lab tests conducted by both the FDA and a commercial lab revealed that BPA leaches from metal-can linings into some infant formula at levels that would expose babies to higher doses of the chemical than those found to cause serious adverse effects in tests done on animals. Indeed, the amount is greater than the amounts that raised concerns about baby bottles themselves.

This past September, experts in panels sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) cautioned that there could be “some risk” that such exposure could both harm brain development and affect behavior in infants. Just a few months earlier, however, the FDA had issued its own conclusions: that “FDA-regulated products containing BPA currently on the market are safe” and that “exposure levels to BPA from food contact materials, including for infants and children, are below those that may cause health effects.” The FDA did not retreat from this position after the NIH reports, although it now says it will “continue to consider new research and information” as it becomes available.

Conclusions or
more questions?

So what is a parent to do? Betty Lucas, an expert in pediatric nutrition at the University of Washington, points out that all formulas in the United States are required to meet the FDA’s minimums and maximums so that their nutritional content is roughly the same, organic or not. For parents concerned about BPA, the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., “watchdog” organization, recommends avoiding liquid formulas, which show higher levels of BPA. Parents can also choose a brand of powdered formula that is packaged in a cardboard-type can, rather than a metal one, to minimize risk.

Even though there is no evidence that organic formulas are better, there is no evidence that they are not. Nor is there evidence that regular formulas do not contain pesticide, growth hormone or antibiotic residues, which are often present in non-organic products. And buying organic may further other parental goals, such as supporting healthy and sustainable farming practices, at least in theory. For some parents, like my husband and me, that may be enough to justify the extra expense — at least until the science catches up with the market.

Kathryn Russell Selk lives, writes, works and agonizes over whether to buy organic for her family in Seattle.


For more information, visit these Web sites:

FDA site on BPA issues 

FDA information pages on infant formula 

USDA’s national organic program: information on certification requirements

NIH information page about its reports/conclusions on BPA

Environmental Working Group report on BPA and its risks 


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