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    What Is in Baby Formula?

    Published 21 June 2019
    Fact Checked
    Reviewed by Marina Savchenko, MD, Pediatric Neurologist, Medical Consultant at Flo
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    Baby formula is a manufactured form of milk designed to be a substitute or supplement for breast milk. As a new or expecting parent, you might wonder what is in baby formula. Here we will explain the basic types of formula and their differences.

    What is baby formula?

    Baby formula is available in a variety of forms. There are powders and concentrates that need to be mixed with water as well as ready-to-use versions that don't need to be mixed. Before the invention of infant bottles and formula, children were either breastfed by their mother or a wet nurse. Parents started bottle feeding in the early 19th century. This is also when it became more acceptable for parents to feed their infants milk from other animals.

    In the early 1850s, an inventor from Texas added sugar to evaporated milk. He canned the substance and sold it as Eagle Brand Condensed Milk. This product became a popular infant food for many families in the United States. The first form of infant formula was developed in 1865 by chemist Justus von Liebig. His formula was first available in liquid form and then as a powder, which could last longer.

    By 1883, there were 27 patented brands of infant food. By 1929, the first non-milk (soy) formula was available to the public. Despite these advancements, many parents used an unsweetened condensed milk product, marketed as "evaporated milk." Pediatricians recommended the use of this product during the 1930s and 40s.

    Modern formula was developed through recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and as a result of the Infant Formula Act of 1980, which authorized the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate the required nutrients in formula and assure quality control.

    Why would you need baby formula? 

    For the first year of life, your baby needs breast milk, formula, or both. Babies shouldn't eat solid foods before they are five or six months old, and they shouldn't try cow's milk before they are 12 months old.

    The World Health Organization recommends that infants breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that infants breastfeed for at least 12 months. If a baby does not breastfeed, they will need to get the necessary nutrients and calories from formula. Parents choose formula for their babies for a variety of reasons. There are several types of formula available.

    3 main types of baby formula

    There are three primary forms of formula. These different forms are designed for the diverse needs of infants who may or may not be able to tolerate a milk-based formula.

    Cow's milk based

    Formula made from cow's milk is the most commonly used type of infant formula. It is made from an altered form of cow's milk and designed to mimic breast milk. This process makes the formula easier for babies to digest and causes less stomach upset.

    Soy based

    This type of formula is an alternative for babies who can't tolerate the lactose in cow's milk. Some parents choose soy-based infant formula to avoid feeding their baby any form of animal protein.

    Protein hydrolysate

    This type of formula starts with cow's milk. The proteins are then broken down into smaller sizes (hydrolyzed). This process makes the formula much easier for babies with sensitive stomachs to digest. It is also great for babies who can't tolerate cow's milk or soy-based formulas.

    Other specialized types of formulas are also available. These are typically suggested for premature infants and babies with specific medical conditions.

    How to prepare baby formula

    The type of formula you choose can be based on your budget and convenience. You can choose from powders, liquid concentrates, and premixed formulas.

    • Powdered formula costs less and lasts longer once opened. Each scoop of powder mixes with a specific amount of water before feeding.
    • Liquid concentrate is usually available in a can or bottle and needs to be mixed with water. Once the can or bottle is open, it must be refrigerated and used within a short amount of time.
    • Premixed formula is available in bottles that you can attach the nipple to. There is no need for mixing. This formula is the most convenient but also the most expensive.

    Before mixing or handling any baby formula, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly. All bottles also need to be thoroughly cleaned after each use and stored in a clean, dry place. All types of formula require proper storage according to the manufacturer's instructions.

    What is in baby formula?

    Any formula sold in the United States is regulated by the FDA and must list all of the specific nutrients required by the FDA on the label.


    Lactose is the predominant carbohydrate (sugar) in both breast milk and cow's milk. The lactose in some formulas may have been altered to make it easier to digest. Most baby formula contains added carbohydrates. These FDA-approved carbohydrates can include any or all of the following:

    • Lactose
    • Maltodextrin
    • Corn syrup
    • Corn syrup solids
    • Sucrose

    Some studies have shown that lactose may help with the balance of healthy gut flora and the absorption of various minerals and calcium.


    Most formula manufacturers are now adding docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid, typically found in breast milk, to their formulas. These are fatty acids that are believed to be necessary for the development of your baby's brain and eyes. Scientific studies point out that your infant's brain will triple in size during their first year of life. The brain is 60 percent fat, so fat is essential for brain development. It supplies energy and helps support the development of your baby's central nervous system.


    According to the requirements by the FDA and recommendations by the AAP, average-weighing infants should get formulas with a protein content 2–2.5 g/100 mL and a protein/energy ratio <3 g/100 kcal. If the baby has very low birth weight, protein content and protein/energy ratio in formula should be higher — 2.9 g/100 mL and 3.5 g/100 kcal, correspondingly. The same applies to preterm infants.

    Baby formula also provides vitamins (A, C, D, E, K, etc.) and minerals (iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium) that babies need for healthy development.

    What is GMO in baby formula?

    You may have heard discussions and news stories about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A GMO is a plant or animal that has had its genetic material (DNA) altered through a laboratory process. This practice has been done routinely to make crops more resistant to insects, bacteria, and fungal infections; breed faster-growing animals; and increase the nutritional value of different products.

    Baby formula and GMOs

    There are 64 countries that currently require genetically modified foods to be labeled. The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, published in December 2018, is a law in the United States that requires products containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled by 2022. Some products have labels claiming they do not contain any GMO ingredients.

    The majority of scientists believe GMOs are safe. The same point has been endorsed by the American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the World Health Organization.

    It is not possible to prove the safety of a food, but researchers can point to the absence of hazards, which most of them do.

    Baby formula pros and cons

    According to the World Health Organization, infants should breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that infants breastfeed for at least 12 months. If you do not breastfeed your baby, there are different formula options available. Although they are not exactly the same as breast milk, they have been manufactured to be as similar as possible.

    The choice to breastfeed or not is a personal decision. If you decide to bottle feed your baby, there are healthy options that you can choose from and many different infant formulas available. Check with your child's pediatrician about the type that they would recommend, as well as a proper feeding schedule for your new baby.

    History of updates

    Current version (21 June 2019)

    Reviewed by Marina Savchenko, MD, Pediatric Neurologist, Medical Consultant at Flo

    Published (21 June 2019)

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