Ad­vances in Baby Formula

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.