I was recently contacted by the Vegan Society of the United Kingdom, an organization which is trying to find a commercially available vegan infant formula for vegan moms who are unable to breastfeed. As a lifelong vegetarian myself, I sympathized with their plight, and tried to find a solution… but unfortunately, there is no vegan-friendly formula on the market. Yeah, there are soy-based and organic formulas, but due to the strict (and necessary) guidelines which infant formula manufactures must adhere to, certain components have to appear in all brands, and some of these components (for example, vitamin D) are animal-derived.
Now, I don’t know enough about the chemical makeup of food to know if this is out of necessity, or laziness on the manufactures parts, or because it’s cheaper to rely on animal sources of these components. If anyone out there knows more about this, I’d be interested in hearing more. It’s a tough one – I do believe that a vegetarian diet is a better one; but I also don’t believe in compromising a child’s health for the parent’s personal beliefs. It’s like this woman I know who refused to feed her 9-month-old daughter fruit because it was too sugary, and she didn’t want her daughter to have the weight issues she’d struggled with. Not really fair to the kid, not to mention that fruit is one of the healthiest, most vitamin-packed, kid-friendly foods, especially at that age. But I digress.
FFF Sarah wrote me last week to voice her concern over the safety of homemade formulas, which she’d seen recipes for online. I intended to write a post about how dangerous these amateur concoctions could be; how they could feasibly damage a baby’s liver and stunt their growth, yadda yadda yadda. But as I researched this topic, my mind started to twist a bit. Not turn, necessarily – I still believe that the safest bet is to use a commercial formula – but I’m not going to write off homemade formula as complete quackery. Especially as there are indeed options for vegans out there, if they go the homemade route.
Here’s the problem as I see it: many of these recipes call for meat or raw milk. We’ve had some pretty scary incidents with animal products in this country (let alone the mad cow crap in the UK); I fear that a layperson, in his/her own kitchen, would not have the ability to properly control for cross-contamination, spoiling, disease, etc., etc. Yes, I understand that commercial formulas can seem alien and over-processed, but they also have the advantage of the FDA and quality control specialists. The animal products in these formulas are so ridiculously processed – which I know is exactly what turns some people off – but processing also confers certain safety benefits.
I also worry that well-meaning parents could be persuaded to leave out certain elements because of bad advice on the internet. There’s a lot of conflicting info out there; much of it is very convincing. But think about it – you read one website about CIO, and you’d think it was child abuse; another, and it’s the answer to all your problems. Likewise, in this case, without a certain amount of education in nutrition, biology, and child health, you’ll have to be taking some random person on the Internet’s word for what constitutes a healthy food for your child.
Now, I’m aware of the flipside of this argument: aren’t we taking the formula companies’ words for it too? Why should we trust them over Weston A Price Foundation or another mother? Good question. That’s up to every parent to decide. But personally, with all my medical decisions, I follow this homemade recipe:
1 cup of a physician I trust.
1 cup of own extensive research
1 cup of discussion with trusted physician about research
1/2 teaspoon of skepticism
1/2 teaspoon of blind faith
Mix all ingredients together and hope for the best.
I view formula in the same way. I think that commercial formulas have the weight of history behind them. Generations of us have grown up on the stuff (and contrary to what some believe, I think most of us turned out pretty darn great). If my pediatrician told me that a homemade formula was a better option, I’d go for it. But she didn’t, so I spent money on a commercial product that worked best for my family.
Does this mean that I think homemade formulas are dangerous? Not necessarily. I don’t know enough about them. But then again, I can read pages and pages (thanks to the breastfeeding studies) of evidence that reassures me that formula is a safe choice for my child. I can’t say the same for homemade formula recipes found on the Internet.
In the end, I have to stick to my old mission statement of “everyone makes the best choices for their particular situation.” If someone’s beliefs makes homemade formula a more viable option than commercial formula, I’m okay with it. It may not be my choice, but just as I haven’t seen any definitive proof that homemade formula is safe, I haven’t found anything not coming from the formula companies or those working for them that suggests it is inherently unsafe, when made properly. That said, I hope that parents considering this choice would find a pediatrician they trust, and talk over this decision thoroughly; use much care in preparation; and make sure that the homemade formula has at least the minimum requirements necessary for infant health (Weston A Price has a breakdown of this on their site).