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Making the decision to raise your child on a plant-based diet often comes with resistance and criticism from naysayers who insist that children need animal products to be healthy.
As vegans, we know that simply isn’t true, but some doubts can be raised when it comes to feeding a newborn. For vegan parents and infants who are unable to breastfeed for whatever reason, the task of finding a nutritionally complete, dairy-free baby formula can be daunting.
Fortunately, dairy-free alternatives to traditional infant formula are on the rise, making it easier than ever to raise healthy vegan babies. Before we reveal our favorite vegan baby formula, let’s explore the complicated world of baby formula and the misconceptions that plague formula feeding.
The breast milk versus formula debate
The debate between breastfeeding and formula feeding is nothing new. It’s true that most experts agree that breast milk is the best food for babies, but breastfeeding simply isn’t an option for many families.
There are several reasons why a baby may be unable to breastfeed, whether because the mother has a chronically low milk supply due to an underlying medical issue or, more commonly, because the baby is lactose intolerant and unable to safely digest breast milk of any kind.
Proponents of breastfeeding are often quick to claim that baby formula is unhealthy for babies, but how much truth, if any, is in that claim? If you are unable to breastfeed your baby, you deserve to know the pros and cons of baby formula so you can be well-informed and confident about what you’re feeding your baby.
Without further ado, let’s get to the bottom of formula.
Getting the facts about formula
Humans have been using alternatives to breast milk for thousands of years, but baby formula as we know it today wasn’t conceived until 1865 when Justus von Liebig created the first commercially available formula.
We’ve come a long way since that original formula — made from cow’s milk, wheat and malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate — but some skeptics still question whether formula is an adequate substitute for a mother’s breast milk.
Before we delve into our favorite dairy-free baby formulas, it’s important that we dissect the stigma that surrounds baby formula and extract the truth.
Can formula make your baby sick?
In response to a steep decline in the percentage of breastfeeding mothers, dropping from 90 percent in the 20th century to just 42 percent in the 21st century, studies have emerged warning about the potential dangers of formula-feeding. Some of these studies indicate that feeding formula is strongly correlated to cases of childhood obesity, diabetes, and atopy. (1)
Before feeling alarmed or discouraged by these claims, let’s examine them more closely, starting with the supposed link between formula and childhood obesity. There is scientific literature that indicates that breastfeeding can lower a child’s risk for becoming obese later in life, but evidence that feeding formula has the opposite effect is sorely lacking. In fact, the studies that supposedly prove breastfeeding prevents obesity fail to address confounding factors. (2, 3)
It’s true that childhood obesity is a growing problem, particularly in the US, and there are many social, environmental, and genetic factors that contribute to this serious public health issue. However, if you are reading this because you are raising a vegan child, you can rest assured that a well-balanced, plant-based diet is one of the most efficient ways to prevent obesity. (4)
Similarly, eating vegan is one of the best defenses against type 2 diabetes, which is strongly linked to diet and body mass. In fact, the same studies that establish a link between formula-feeding and diabetes focus on dairy-based formulas, claiming that introducing cow’s milk to an infant’s diet may increase their chances of developing type 2 diabetes. All the more reason to ditch the dairy and feed your baby a plant-based formula with confidence! (5, 6)
Atopy is a genetic predisposition to developing allergic diseases (most commonly eczema and asthma), and some scientific literature suggests a link between formula feeding and atopy. One study in particular indicated that being breastfed for at least the first four months of a baby’s life significantly reduces the chances that a child will become atopic. (7, 8)
That does not mean, however, that not breastfeeding or switching to formula early in your child’s life will cause them to become atopic; nor does it mean that breastfed children can’t become atopic. Genetics play a significant role in a child’s likelihood of developing allergic diseases, so it’s misleading to single out baby formula as the cause.
Does formula-feeding impact the parent-child relationship?
In addition to myths and misunderstandings about formula’s supposed impact on babies’ biological health, there’s the question of how formula-feeding affects their emotional health.
Mommy blogs and parenting magazines are quick to claim that breastfeeding is the best way to bond with your baby and that by not breastfeeding, you’re depriving your child of that crucial connection. While breastfeeding is a natural bonding tool, there is insufficient evidence to conclusively prove that it’s any better or worse for bonding than feeding formula. (9)
As long as you provide your baby with love and affection, there is no reason to worry that formula-feeding will hurt your bond with them in any way.
How important is DHA?
Anyone familiar with baby formula has certainly heard the buzzword “DHA,” but what exactly is it, and do babies actually need it? DHA is docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that is naturally found in breast milk. This fatty acid is believed to be crucial to the healthy development of the eyes and brain, which is why synthetic forms of DHA are often added to infant formulas, even though it is not required by the FDA.
As it turns out, it hasn’t been conclusively proven that synthetic DHA actually does anything to improve babies’ development — but it hasn’t been shown to have a negative effect, either, so there’s no harm in giving your baby a DHA-fortified formula if you feel it’s necessary. (10)
If you want to learn more about DHA’s role in brain development, check out this short, informative video:
What to look for in vegan infant formula
All baby formulas, whether they’re dairy-based or plant-based, have strict nutritional standards they must meet in order to be considered safe and nutritionally complete. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) establishes minimum required levels of the most important nutrients that babies need for healthy development, such as protein, calcium, Vitamins D, and many others.
You’ll generally find that most formulas contain about the same levels of these required nutrients, but there is a key difference between the requirements for dairy-based and non-dairy formulas: only non-dairy baby formulas are required to have added choline, biotin, and inositol. While there are no upper limits on these particular nutrients, there are maximum allowed levels for Vitamin D, Vitamin A, fat, protein, and several trace minerals.
While the core nutrient content of formula is strictly regulated, the other, nonessential baby formula ingredients are not. When trying to choose the right vegan baby formula for your little one, you may become alarmed by some of these ingredients. What’s safe, and what should be avoided?
Why is there corn syrup in my baby’s formula?
A common ingredient in many baby formulas, especially lactose-free ones, is corn syrup. This can definitely be alarming to health-conscious parents who try to avoid corn syrup and excessive sugar in their own diet, but corn syrup and other sugars in baby formula may not be as bad as you think.
Corn syrup, corn syrup solids, sucrose, maltodextrin, and glucose syrup — all common ingredients in formula — serve the same basic purpose: to provide your baby with a simple carbohydrate. All of these sugars can be broken down into their building blocks: glucose, fructose, and galactose.
While fructose, glucose, and lactose are naturally found in breast milk, lactose is obviously not an option for lactose intolerant babies or vegan parents who are feeding formula, so that leaves us with fructose and glucose.
There is evidence that high fructose content in breast milk is positively associated with higher body mass in babies, so it may be wise to avoid sugars that are high in fructose. The main culprit would be sucrose, but corn syrup and other types of sugars are relatively lower in fructose and would make safer choices. (11)
Is soy safe for babies?
Most dairy-free baby formulas will include soy as their main source of protein. Soy remains a hotly debated topic, even among some vegans (“It’s good!” “It’s evil!” “What is phytoestrogen?!” “Monsanto!”), so it’s not unreasonable to be skeptical about feeding your baby soy.
In truth, there is no clear, definitive answer to the question of whether or not soy is completely safe for babies. Pretty much all of the studies that indicate that soy may be harmful to their health are based on the results of animal studies, which “do not model the human condition”. In other words, you can’t reliably predict soy’s effect on children based on how it affects other species in experiments that don’t reflect the normal, human consumption of soy. (12)
There are other factors to consider when deciding whether or not to feed your baby soy; perhaps the most important of these are the prevalence of genetically modified soy and the heavy use of chemical pesticides and herbicides on soy crops. (13)
The choice to feed your baby a soy formula is completely up to you; just know that if you choose to avoid feeding a soy-based formula, your choices will be more limited. If you’re wary of soy but can’t seem to avoid using it, a fair compromise would be a soy formula that is GMO-free and/or organic. Fortunately, as you’ll soon see, we have some of those on our list! That brings us to…
The Best Vegan Baby Formulas
We’ve sorted through the myths and misconceptions, and now it’s time to review our favorite dairy-free baby formulas! While reading these reviews, keep in mind that every baby is different and that two babies can have very different reactions to the same formula.
Neocate Infant with DHA and ARA
The Neocate Infant formula by Nutricia is a hypoallergenic formula made without soy. It’s fortified with DHA and ARA, or arachidonic acid, another fatty acid believed to be important to brain and eye development in infants.
Many parents report that Neocate helped their fussy babies stop spitting up their food, and several others noted an improvement in their babies’ stool once they made the switch from other formulas. Some even found that skin conditions like eczema improved while on Neocate.
This formula may be a lifesaver for babies with severe allergies, but some reviewers were disappointed to find that they simply could not get their infants to drink it because they don’t like the taste. Others found that this formula doesn’t mix smoothly, which can easily clog a rubber nipple and make feeding more difficult.
- Contains DHA and ARA
- May help with allergic skin conditions
- May improve digestion and reduce spit up
- May clog bottle nipples
- Some babies find it unpalatable
Baby’s Only Organic Soy Formula
Baby’s Only Organic Soy Formula is a soy-based formula made specifically for toddlers. This formula gets bonus points for being 100% organic and free of GMOs.
Baby’s Only is made without corn or gluten, making it a great choice for toddlers with sensitivities to those foods, or parents who wish to avoid feeding their child a bottle full of corn syrup.
Toddlers seem to like the taste of this formula, and parents have seen improvements in digestive and skin issues after switching to Baby’s Only.
The most obvious drawback to this formula is that it’s only for toddlers aged 1 year or older, so parents of infants will have to try a different formula. And it’s obviously not for kids with sensitivity to soy!
- No corn syrup
- Organic, non-GMO ingredients
- Kids like the taste
- May improve digestion and clear up skin issues caused by food allergies
- Not usable for infants under 1 year old or toddlers with soy allergies
Enfamil ProSobee Soy-Based Infant Formula
The Enfamil ProSobee Soy-Based Infant Formula is another soy-based option for dairy-free babies. It’s designed specifically for babies with sensitive stomachs, and many parents report that it does just that: fussy, gassy babies are able to find some relief after switching to this formula.
Parents also like how well this formula mixes with water, producing a completely smooth and clump-free formula that won’t clog your baby’s bottle.
Some reviewers noticed improvement in their babies digestive and skin conditions, such as rashes and colic. Others found that the formula caused gastric upset and constipation, but these types of disparities in results might be expected in any formula because every baby is different.
The Enfamil ProSobee formula is a reasonable choice for parents looking for a lactose-free baby formula, but it would be more reassuring if the soy used in this formula was organic, or at least non-GMO. If you’re wary of feeding your baby GMO soy, you’ll want to steer clear of this formula.
- Suitable for babies with sensitive stomachs
- Mixes with water smoothly — no clumps!
- Not made with non-GMO soy
Gerber Good Start Soy, Stage 3
The Stage 3 Gerber Good Start Soy Infant & Toddler Formula is a non-GMO, soy baby formula. While its name implies that it’s suitable for infants and toddlers, it’s important to note that it’s not designed for babies under 9 months old.
The completely lactose-free Soy 3 formula is fortified with iron, choline, calcium, Vitamin D, and all the other essential nutrients that your baby needs to be healthy.
Parents have found that this formula is more palatable to their babies than other soy formulas, making it a good choice for picky eaters. Another plus is that it may help improve your baby’s digestion, resulting in less gas and constipation, which equals a happy baby (and happy parents!).
Reviewers didn’t have many complaints about this Gerber formula; the only minor drawback is that it can’t be fed to babies younger than 9 months old, but there’s a Stage 1 formula, too, so you’re well covered.
Overall, the Gerber Good Start Soy 3 formula is a solid choice for plant-based babies, especially those with sensitive tummies.
- Non-GMO ingredients
- Suitable for infants and toddlers
- Relatively better-tasting than other soy formulas
- May improve digestion
- Can’t be used for babies under 9 months old (although a Stage 1 formula is available – see above)
Similac Soy Isomil
Rounding out our list is Similac Soy Isomil, formulated to relieve fussiness and gas in babies up to 12 months old who have sensitive stomachs.
Parents with sensitive babies have reported success with Similac’s soy formula. Gas, constipation, diarrhea, excessive spit up, and slow weight gain were all issues that Similac Soy Isomil was able to solve for some babies, much to their parents’ relief.
In some cases, however, babies actually became constipated after switching to this formula, which goes to show that no formula is one-size-fits-all. Another common issue that reviewers found was that this formula doesn’t mix very smoothly, often producing excessive clumps and foam, both of which can actually cause digestive issues.
Similac Soy Isomil may be helpful for babies with lactose intolerance and sensitive stomachs, but if you’re looking for an organic or GMO-free soy formula, this isn’t the one for you.
- Can help relieve digestive issues
- Can promote healthy weight gain
- Not made from organic or non-GMO soy
- Difficult to mix
Which dairy free baby formula is our favorite?
While it’s hard to choose a single formula, we have to give the top spot to the Gerber Good Start Soy 3 formula.
Formulated for babies over nine months old and toddlers, this Gerber soy formula helps give your baby a healthy start to life with non-GMO ingredients, which is a relief for parents who are concerned about GMO soy.
What parents love about the Gerber Good Start Soy 3 formula is that their babies actually like to drink it. Formulas can be known to have a rather funky taste and odor that can make them repulsive to certain babies, which is why Gerber’s palatability gives it major bonus points in our book.
Parents have also found that this formula helps significantly with frustrating digestive issues that caused their babies pain and discomfort, like gassiness and constipation. They also like that it’s generally more affordable than other lactose-free formulas.
The only drawback to this formula isn’t really much of a drawback at all: it’s not designed for babies under 9 months old, but if you’re interested in trying this formula and you have a newborn, you can try the Stage 1 version of this formula until they’re old enough for Stage 3.
Finding the right dairy free formula for your baby can be tricky, but we hope that our guide can help guide you in the right direction. Have you tried any of these formulas? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments!
If you click a link on this page and make a purchase, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more.
About The Author:
Cristina is a writer, doggy daycare attendant, and vegan of nearly a decade. She earned a B.A. in Comparative Literature with a minor in gender studies from University of California, Irvine. As an undergrad, she served as president of the university’s animal rights club and conducted and presented research on the intersections of feminism and veganism.
When she’s not writing or taking care of dogs, she enjoys reading everything from autobiographies to YA fantasy novels, tending to her houseplants, cooking, and drawing. She lives in Southern California with her boyfriend and their dog.
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