My honest reaction to The Honest Company’s new formula

So there’s a new formula on the market.

Honest-Company-Formula-DHA

This should be good news, right? Especially as this particular formula brand (The Honest Company) is trying to corner the organic, natural-minded formula feeder market, which is steadily growing. I’ve heard from many FFFs who import a British organic formula because it’s the only one that suits their needs; this is certainly not cost-effective or efficient, and it’s spectacular that these parents now have a Stateside option.

Unfortunately, most of the formula feeding community (including me) learned of this new product via an article on PopSugar which only served to infuriate a good deal of its target audience.

“When you’re trying to feed your baby, you’re riddled with emotion, shame, judgement . . . all these extra layers,” Christopher Gavigan, the company’s cofounder and the creator of the formula, told us. “We acknowledge that breast milk is the most nutritious form of food on Earth, but if you look at the research, the majority of moms will end up doing some combination of feeding, whether it’s a choice or because they have to. It’s a growing reality around the world. And in that reality, parents have to be able to choose something.”

Um, I’m no marketing genius, but since when has “well, we know you feel really shitty about using this – and you SHOULD – but since you have to do it, you may as well choose us” been an effective marketing strategy?

One could argue that for moms who just need to supplement a little, or who are still feeling awful about their “failure” to breastfeed, this self-flagellating attitude might be welcomed. But that doesn’t mean it’s helpful. I wonder about the impact of this language on moms who already worry enough about nutrition to shell out $30/can for formula.

This product launch is also causing drama because Gavigan implies that other widely-used commercial formulas are sub-par:

What he came up with was a formula carefully modeled after breast milk, nutritionally complete, easy to digest, and meticulously blended using ingredients sourced from trusted organic farms. It’s free of gluten, GMOs, flavorings, steroids, growth hormones, and pesticides. And it’s the only formula on the market that has chosen to leave out hexane-extracted DHA (while the fatty acid is known to help with baby’s brain development, the synthetic forms don’t meet safety standards).

While there are many who don’t feel comfortable with hexane-extracted DHA (and I’m thrilled they have a new option, because all parents deserve to feel comfortable with what they are feeding their babies), it’s patently false that the forms used in other formulas don’t meet safety standards. They may not meet Gavigan’s safety standards, or the Cornucopia Institute’s standards, or European standards, or YOUR safety standards, but they do meet the safety standards formula companies must adhere to. Speaking of which, I highly doubt this formula’s ingredients closely resemble breastmilk any more so than Good Start’s. Every formula company wants to get as close to breastmilk as possible. That’s sort of the end-goal. If Honest Company has cracked the code, I think we’d be seeing articles in the Wall Street Journal, not PopSugar.  (Also, for the record, Baby’s Only also has a hexane-free option, although they market it as a “toddler formula” because they believe babies should be primarily breastfed for the first year. But it really is an infant formula. Which is weird. But whatever.)

That said, it is plausible that they have sourced all their ingredients from trusted organic farms. That’s probably where the hefty price tag comes from.

Yet, while Gavigan’s quotes in the Pop Sugar article left a lot to be desired, whoever designed the company’s website is a genius. In the introduction to their feeding section, they state:

No breast versus bottle, no right or wrong: We believe how parents choose to feed their babies is a personal process based on the needs of their families. We know it can be quite an emotional decision. That’s why we’re here not to judge, but rather to support parents with a range of researched information and safe, premium products that empower every family to make the best choices given their unique circumstances.
We’re aware that breast is best, but we also understand that families may choose or require other options. No parent should have to feel guilty for choosing to feed her or his baby one way or another. Parents have been nourishing their children in all kinds of ways since the beginning of time as we know it. With Honest Feeding, The Honest Company hopes to represent the next step in the evolution of nourishment as we help you lay the foundation for a safe, healthy and happy future.

 

Freaking amazing, isn’t it? And even better, they have a section called “Transparency” where they take you through the ingredients in their formula, where they are sourced, etc. The old guard formula companies could learn a lot from this approach. It’s beautiful.

Problem is, I don’t know if what’s on the site is merely lip service, and the “persona” of Honest as a formula company will be closer to the PopSugar representation. I really, really hope that Gavigan was just misquoted.

Regardless, when I posted about this new formula on the FFF Facebook page, all hell broke loose. Some echoed Gavigan’s feelings about currently available commercial formulas, saying that what was available was “garbage”. Others understandably balked at this suggestion. Feelings were hurt, insults were hurled, and I ended up turning off the computer and watching Law & Order SVU because it was less frightening.

(**This is what we’ve come to. We’re so reactive, because we’ve been forced to live in fear, under this heavy, smelly cloud of judgment. It puts us in bad moods, makes us jumpy and defensive, and who can blame us? You spend too much time under a smelly cloud, and you start to kind of stink, too. I know I do.** )

So where do I stand on this new product? First, it doesn’t matter what I think. It’s not my baby. It’s yours. And what mattered to me when I was choosing formula doesn’t have anything to do with what matters to you. My kids couldn’t tolerate anything but expensive hypoallergenics, and I was so relieved to have a way to feed them that allowed them not to starve or bleed from their GI tract that I wouldn’t have cared if the ingredients came from the seventh layer of hell. If organic, hexane-free formula is important to parents, then I damn well want to see organic, hexane-free formulas on the market. We should have more options, overall. That doesn’t mean formulas differ in how they will nourish your baby – they all meet the same nutritional standards and your baby will grow well on all of them, unless s/he has a special need/allergy/intolerance that necessitates a specialty formula. But there’s enough “noise” out there when it comes to our food (not that I condone or agree with this noise, but that’s not really here nor there) to make any new parent anxious, and when you’re already feeling anxious about not breastfeeding, the last thing you need is more anxiety.

One more thing I want to address, in this convoluted post: On Twitter, a lot of pediatricians I respect and who have fair, balanced perspective on formula use, surprised me with their reaction to this new formula. I share their skepticism on the marketing claims, but I worry about this attitude of “no formula will ever match breastmilk, so why even try?” That’s fatalist and scientifically pessimistic. There is always room for improvement. This may mean more options, better safety protocols, more transparency from the formula companies  And yeah, someday, it might mean making a formula that is even closer to breastmilk, at least in terms of certain specific aspects of human milk that we could potentially recreate in a lab. It’s not outside the realm of possibility.

Sometimes, I think that our desire to promote breastfeeding denies us the opportunity to do better for our population as a whole. As Gavigan rightly points out, many parents use formula. That will not change, at least not in our lifetimes. Throughout history, babies have been fed with drinks and foods other than breastmilk, much earlier than the currently advised 6-month mark. Providing the healthiest alternative possible should be a major goal. Dismissing formulas as “all the same” translates to “all junk” in the hyper-alert minds of loving parents. That’s not the message we should be sending, and more importantly, it’s not true.

Here is what it comes down to: No formula is “better” than another, nor is any parent “better” than another. We make choices; sometimes those choices are made for us, for financial or health reasons. The beauty of having options is that we feel we can exert some control over our babies’ health. The downside of having options is that we feel pressured to make choices that can exert control over our babies’ health.  And it gets even more complicated, because no one can agree on what is “healthy” half the time. Depending on whether you read Food Babe or Grounded Parents, your definition will vary.

But here’s what it also comes down to: We can’t confuse innovation, marketing and development within an industry with the politics of infant feeding at large. It’s the difference between arguing whether parabens should be in skin care products, and proclaiming that no one should be using anything but water and olive oil to clean their faces in the first place. It’s telling a car company that they shouldn’t be talking about their safety ratings, but rather encouraging people to walk.

It’s good to talk about these things. And no one should feel they have to sugarcoat or keep mum about issues that concern them. But if we could all just be realistic, be wary, and be kind, it would make for a much more palatable and productive discussion.

Honestly. It’s that easy.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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14 thoughts on “My honest reaction to The Honest Company’s new formula

  1. I have many friends who love the Honest Company so obviously, to each his own. Certainly, every child is different and many do need special formulas. It’s been my opinion that the Honest Company has a history of trying to guilt and shame parents into spending more money on their expensive products (they always say their diapers are “safe” thus insinuating that other diapers are not safe and what kind of a mom would put unsafe diapers on their babies?). Therefore, I won’t buy any of their items. I am blessed that my baby girl does great on Target Brand formula. That’s just my two cents though.

  2. I love that the Honest Company offers a baby conditioner that you can buy in stores. Both of us have very curly hair, so kiddo does as well. We ended up buying California Baby conditioner online- it was a bit expensive, but we’ve still got at least half a bottle and are approaching kiddo’s 2nd birthday. Also, their “diaper cake” gifts are adorable and amuse me.

    I wish that they specified that “organic” milk means pasture-raised/grass-fed. It doesn’t always. I know plenty of people don’t think it matters- but I think it does. It’s one of the advantages of the European formula- it’s actually made with grass fed milk. Most of the companies that explicitly are grassfed at least mention it, and I can’t find any reference to the Honest Formula which makes me think it isn’t.

    Still waiting on that A2/goat’s milk formula, though…

  3. I think the organic anti-GMO product crowd is starting to shame almost as badly as the lactivists are. They believe they have science on their side and that therefore they are “right” – and the rest of us are “wrong.” But even more so than with breastfeeding, this ends up being class shaming. I CAN NOT afford organic formula or other organic food, and I resent it every time I see someone say that non-organic and/or GMO food of any kind is “unsafe,” “less safe,” “concerning” or anything else. All of those are value judgements about the qualify of food I feed my children. And I’ve yet to see any convincing science proving the dangers of non-organic or GMO foods. The Honest Company seems to be anything but honest from my perspective.

    • You’ll get individuals who shame in every crowd. This blog is run by a vegetarian, and I’ve met some INCREDIBLY judgemental, vocal, “My way or the highway” vegetarians and vegans in my time. Yet I don’t see every post derailed by how Suzie is horrible for supporting-through-loose-association the judgemental vegetarians.

      I also think that you may not realize just how much effort goes into the organic lifestyle. People put a LOT of effort into budgeting around it, they cut costs in other places, they do LOADS of research to find the best value, they grow their own food, they spend months or years saving up for things like mattresses, etc. There are people who base major decisions like career choice and location around this. There’s a degree of classism, definitely, but it’s a lot more than just going to the grocery store and not caring about the price difference.

      There are also people who are no-GMO and all-organic in no small part because it helps them, there’s a HUGE difference between GMO and non-GMO food on their personal well-being. So all the studies in the world can say “GMOs aren’t harmful” and they can say “Okay, but I feel like crap on GMOs and don’t on organic, so….”. And that applies to kids as well- yes, I have seen parents who are organic specifically because it’s a GIANT, notable, legitimate difference on their individual child’s health. So, yeah, they’re going to make blogs and articles about how much better their families are doing on organic food. Because they legitimately are.

      Your kids are doing fine on non-organic food, that’s great! There’s a few families whose kids do not do well on non-organic food. Rather than assuming everyone who feels the need for organic foods is judging you, why not frame it another way: You aren’t faced with the challenge of choosing between trying to budget for organic foods or risking your child’s well-being. You can feel confident knowing that your child is doing perfectly well on non-organic foods and focus your attention elsewhere. To you, organic food is just a luxury that simply isn’t your budget- it isn’t something that you have to plan your entire life around.

      • A perfect example of what I’m talking about. I point out that saying non-organic food is “unsafe” is judgmental and hurtful, and in response a get a long diatribe about how I’m wrong.

        • I pointed out that there are people for whom unorganic food is unsafe, even though it’s not for most people, and as with most food intolerances, having to deal with that REALLY sucks.

          Not really sure how that proves your point…

          • I can’t eat pineapple, but I don’t go around telling people it’s “unsafe.” STOP SHAMING PEOPLE ABOUT THEIR FOOD CHOICES ALREADY.

          • I already said I don’t agree with shaming. The fact is that not everyone who states that they have problems with inorganic food is shaming, but we’ve become a culture where you can’t state your lived experiences without someone else taking it as a personal assault.

            Of course, you’re ignoring what I’m saying. There’s really no point in this conversation. I hope you find your peace on this issue.

  4. Formula companies have a difficult marketing job. They have to promote their product while acknowledging that “breast is best” because that’s conventional wisdom. What other product has to do that in their advertising?

    • Tobacco companies are obliged by lawto state that smoking kills, in the UK.
      Most of the contributors to this website seem to accept that breastfeeding results in better health outcomes for mothers and babies – but also want to be able to make a personal choice depending on their own circumstances and experience, without feeling judged. I think the evidence of the health benefits of breastfeeding are more than “conventional wisdom”. The WHO code for marketing of breastmilk substitutes exists stop aggressive marketing of formula which kills babies in resource poor countries. Don’t feel sorry for the formula companies who profit from a product that kills babies!

      • Have you even read why it kills babies in resource poor countries? WATER. WATER IS THE REASON, NOT THE FORMULA. If those people had access to clean drinking water, their children wouldn’t die. They also wouldn’t contract diseases like dyptheria. Bad drinking water can also AFFECT BREAST MILK, BUT OKAY. It’s bacteria in water and diluted formula that kills babies, not formula itself. Formula companies should also provide easily accessible formula, but they have to make money to contribute to CREATING MORE FORMULA. GASP, THAT IS HOW CAPITALISM WORKS.

        So yes, let’s not even give these people formula if they have physical issues that prevent breastfeeding or supply problems, because women have those issues EVERYWHERE. Let’s let them watch their babies STARVE TO DEATH instead. Do you even know why we had such high infant mortality rates before formula was invented?! Because mothers who didn’t have access to wet nurses had to watch their children starve (if they survived childbirth) because they had then unexplained physical issues, or supply problems due to lack of food, water, and environmental/emotional stresses.

        Clearly you haven’t had supply issues or issues breastfeeding if you can come here, to a formula friendly blog, and be a lactation asshole. We have enough guilt, spew your WHO supported shit elsewhere because we are aware of it and have to feed our babies somehow. Should we let them starve instead?

      • Formula saves lives. Formula was invented so that when breastfeeding isn’t working out, there’s an option that actually gives babies what they need. It also exists for babies who need more than what breastmilk provides or who can’t tolerate breastmilk (YES! it happens!), they won’t just die. Formula saves the lives that breastmilk fails.

        Formula improves constantly- breastmilk certainly can’t say the same. And don’t say “no room for improvement”, there certainly is. Medicines, diseases, and other crap is transmitted through breastmilk. If the nursing parent has inadequate nutrition, it can cause serious problems for the baby. Breastfeeding has certainly been found inadequate for many babies- if that weren’t true, formula wouldn’t even exist.

  5. It really doesn’t matter to me one way or another which formula a person chooses to feed their child. We are all doing the best that we can. You should know however, that one statement about the Honest Co. Formula was incorrect. While they chose not to include the DHA in powdered form, they have provided it in liquid form. It is purchased separately, sold right with the formula, and you add a few drops according to the directions. Whatever you chose as a parent is your choice. There will always be haters. Remember, “A Lion never loses sleep over the opinions of sheep.” 🙂

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