I’ve learned a valuable lesson this week: don’t put off until tomorrow what you could do today, because tomorrow something even more aggravating might happen and then you find yourself buried in a pile of horse manure.
There are two big stories going down in the infant feeding world at the moment. First, arsenic was found in baby formula. Second, a
meddling concerned grandmother decided to investigate the sugar present in formula, and discovered a sticky sweet conspiracy to hook America’s children on simple carbs from day one.
Let’s start with the arsenic scare, because it’s the least annoying story of the two, and better we should ease in to this evening’s exercise in frustration. A group of researchers hypothesized that brown rice syrup, a sweetener often used in organic foods in place of villainous high fructose corn syrup, would have high levels of arsenic. This is because organic arsenic (not the same thing as inorganic arsenic, the kind we commonly hear about in old detective novels) is often present in soil; rice tends to soak up the arsenic, and if brown rice syrup is used in a variety of foods that we eat, it could add up to potentially harmful levels. High levels of organic arsenic have been linked to cancer, heart disease and other health problems. Now, theoretically (and not-so-theoretically, as arsenic has been found in other rice products), any kind of rice-derived food could be a source of trace amounts of arsenic. But if we’re talking baby food, we’re also talking tiny humans who are far more susceptible to chemicals and such. As NPR explains, “The risk appears to be dose-related… with higher levels of arsenic increasing disease risk… Concentrated foods like rice bran or brown rice syrup, which is sometimes used as a sweetener in vegan recipes, can be very high in arsenic…”
(Just want to pause for a moment to muse about the irony of everyone turning up their noses at table sugar and HFCS as if it is poison, and yet something totally organic and supposedly better for you ends up being truly poisonous. As we’ve discussed on here quite a bit, “natural” or “organic” does not always necessarily mean “perfect”. Death is natural and organic, and so is body hair, and I really dislike both of those things and do my best to keep them out of my life.)
So, to be clear – this study was looking at products containing brown rice syrup, especially those fed to babies and children, as their relative risk is higher due to lower weights, developing bodies, and the fact that a lot of kids eat massive amounts of certain products like cereal bars, rice cereals, and yes… formula. One of the types of products tested was infant formula; out of a slew of formulas tested, only two – both organic brands- contained significantly high levels of arsenic. While the researchers would not call out the companies manufacturing these formulas by name, a bit of investigative journalism unearthed that only one company used brown rice syrup in their formulas, and that was Nature’s One, makers of Baby’s Only Organic Dairy Toddler Formula and Baby’s Only Organic Soy Toddler Formula (I say this with an arched eyebrow, as it took me all of 10 minutes to figure out that brown rice syrup was only used by one type of organic infant formula by checking the ingredients of all commercial organic formulas. And yet it took at least a day before anyone was naming names on the news… seriously, guys. It’s called Google.)
Interestingly, Nature’s One is pretty adamant about marketing these formulas as toddler formulas anyway, so they aren’t even technically “infant formulas” – semantics, but important semantics, as the news bytes made it sound like the arsenic problem was a common one, endemic to all infant formulas. Not so much.
Bottom line? The only folks who need to worry about this particular risk of formula feeding are those using Nature’s One products. And if this is you – please don’t worry too much. I might consider switching to another product if you can, at least until more research is done about the true risk of the measured levels of arsenic – but it’s highly doubtful that your baby will suffer any ill effects if s/he has been using these formulas. Talk to your physician, but remember: all this study showed was that there are relatively high levels of arsenic in ONE relatively unpopular brand of formula - it did not show that this particular level of arsenic was harmful in any way.
Speaking of Nature’s One, the very reason they got in this pickle in the first place offers a perfect segue into my next topic: sugar in formula. The company prided itself on being the only formula manufacturer to use brown rice syrup as a source of carbohydrate, rather than the other types of sugars typically used in formula: lactose and sucrose:
Organic lactose and evaporated cane juice are simple sugars. Simple carbohydrates are quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, increasing insulin levels. A more complex carbohydrate, such as organic brown rice syrup used in Baby’s Only Organic® formulas, requires more time for digestion resulting in slower and steadier absorption of the carbohydrates into the blood stream and a more constant production of insulin…The medical community has expressed concern over using cane sugar in infant formulas because it is five times sweeter than lactose and could pose health or medical issues related to obesity or dental caries. The carbohydrates in Baby’s Only Organic® Dairy Formula consist of 35% naturally occurring lactose from the organic non-fat cow’s milk and 65% organic brown rice syrup.
Source: Nature’s One Website
In other words, Nature’s One was trying to distinguish itself from other organic formulas with its sugars. Their marketing team was on to something, although sadly for them, by the time society caught up and started freaking out about sugar in formula, it happened to coincide with the discovery that brown rice syrup may pose its own “medical issues”. Coincide as in the very same week.
This sweetener scare was started by a grandma who was troubled by her granddaughter’s rapid weight gain (four pounds in a month) after switching from breastfeeding to formula feeding. She went on a mission to find out just how much sugar was in these “baby milkshakes” her grandbaby was chugging, and was shocked to find out that some formulas contained as much as 13.4 grams of sugar per serving. But the amounts varied, with some formulas only having about 3 grams, and in the formulas with higher sugar, the sugar tended to be lactose, which is the same sugar that’s found in breastmilk (and considered to be a “good” type of sugar). These findings apparently make one pediatric dentist nervous:
Chicago pediatric dentist Kevin Boyd, who also has a Masters in nutrition and dietetics…said he has long been concerned about the sweetness of formula and the effect it has on babies.
“We’re conditioning them to crave sweetness,” Boyd said. “I would say any formula that has sucrose, it?s super sweet, it makes the kid crave sugar. It triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, and it’s a comfort-level thing. It makes the kid want to eat more, so they become hypersensitive to sweetness.”
While the amounts of sugar grams may be low, Boyd said the impact on babies is huge.
“They’re conditioned to just really like super sweet?. And their fat cells are saying more, more, more please.”
But color me confused, because breastmilk has around 7 grams of sugar, in the form of lactose, as well.
Formula is trying to get as close to breastmilk as it can in terms of its constituents. Because, as any breastfeeding website will gladly tell you, it’s supposed to be a substitute for breastmilk when babies can’t have the gold standard It’s not being produced as part of a nefarious plot to make the human race a bunch of sugar addicts. Babies are pre-programmed to like sweet things; this is exactly why breastmilk is so much sweeter tasting than cow’s milk. Nutrition guru Dr. Cinque explains it quite nicely:
Breast milk is loaded with sugar! Human breast milk has nearly 40% of its calories as sugar! Human milk is the sweetest milk on the planet, and by far. In this whole wide world of mammals, going from the tiny pygmy shrew which weighs less than 2 grams all the way up to the blue whale, which is the largest animal that has ever lived, to every mammal in between, none makes a milk as sweet as ours. Nothing even comes close. Human breast milk, by weight, is over 7% sugar! In comparison, cow’s milk is only 4.8%, goat’s milk 4.4%, sheep milk 5.1%, and water buffalo milk 4.9%…
The news reports were all up in arms that formula companies weren’t listing the amounts of sugar in their products, and I can understand why people might think this was sketchy. But if you look at the back of a formula can, the nutritional information doesn’t look like a normal nutrition label. That’s because formula is not really considered a food as much as a supplement. I’m not condoning that, necessarily, but what other food has a warning on the label stating that you shouldn’t eat it because something else is so much better? (Imagine if the back of your V-8 said “Fresh fruits and vegetables are best. We recommend not drinking this in place of eating fruits and veggies.”) Most parents (and apparently most grandmothers and new reporters) don’t understand the difference between sugars – lactose and sucrose are beneficial in different ways; lactose is the sugar which is in breastmilk and thus preferable for babies, but lactose-intolerant or milk allergic children can’t tolerate this sugar, which is why hypoallergenic or sensitive formulas often use corn syrup solids or sucrose as a carbohydrate instead.
As for the pediatric dentist who jumped on board this particular media circus caravan – the sugar in formula is no more likely to “program” us to like sweet things more than breastmilk, which is (at least in most cases) equally sweetTake a taste of breastmilk, and a taste of formula. Which tastes better? Why would a baby learn to crave sweet things from something that tastes kind of odd and not all that sweet in the first place? Haven’t we all read a ton of anti-formula literature that talks about how bad formula tastes, how much sweeter breastmilk is, etc.? One of the higher-sugar formulas in the study was a hypoallergenic, and this just proves to me how many holes are in this report, because the hypos most certainly do not taste sweet. (This is one of the reasons I knew how much my son was hurting on my milk when we switched from bottled breastmilk to hypoallergenic formula – if he looked so satisfied with something that tasted so god-awful, breastmilk had to have been making him feel horrible.) From a business standpoint, what benefit would there be to a formula company to make their formula sweeter? It’s not like babies have a say in the matter; parents choose formula based on what coupons they get in the mail, what their friends or pediatricians recommend, or what ultimately works best after a lot of trial and error. How “sweet” a formula tastes does not factor in.
In terms of obesity – there’s no evidence that the sugar in formula causes obesity, as far as I know. If you watch the video about this story, you’ll notice that the baby in question isn’t at all obese, which makes me wonder what the circumstances were prior to her rapid weight gain. Why was she switched to formula? Perhaps the mom had low supply or other feeding problems which were not allowing the baby to gain properly? Without more information, we’re left with half a story. Also, FFF Siobhan caught something interesting in the video that she posted over on the FFF Facebook page – at one point, the grandmother appears to be encouraging the baby to keep drinking her bottle, even though the baby is showing no interest in doing so… “Try a little more?” she says, as milk dribbles out of the baby’s mouth. Perhaps teaching this woman better bottle-feeding techniques would help her combat her fears of baby obesity and feel a bit more proactive.
To review: sugar is not inherently bad, especially for babies; formulas use sucrose or other sugars in place of lactose because some babies can’t tolerate lactose or milk-derived ingredients. Except for a few formulas, most commercial formulas have equivalent (or in some cases less) sugar to breastmilk.
Got it? Sweet.