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Synthetic DHA + ARA
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) are fatty acids naturally found in breast milk that contribute to a baby’s healthy development. The synthetic versions of DHA and ARA, however, aren’t quite the same as those in Mom’s milk, and there’s some debate whether they have any positive affect on development or if they’re even safe. Research published in the International Breastfeeding Journal concluded that synthetic DHA and ARA had no real benefits to “the great majority of infants” despite marketing claims that they helped vision and brain development. The Cornucopia Institute, an organic foods watchdog organization, notes that DHA and ARA may be responsible for gastrointestinal distress in some infants and has also argued for banning these fatty acids from organic formulas due to they way they’re manufactured. DHA and ARA are extracted from algae and fungus using hexane, a petroleum-based solvent, which is hazardous to the nervous system and a neurotoxin in rats.
All formulas contain some kind of added sugar because it’s necessary in order for babies to be able to digest the proteins in milk and soy, but not all sugars are created equal. In 2008, The New York Times investigated the use of sucrose in organic formulas, and they reported that though sugar isn’t associated with health problems in babies, it can lead to issues down the line like degraded tooth enamel and even childhood obesity (a concern that led Europe to ban sucrose from formula). It turns out that babies and children (and let’s face it, a lot of adults) will always prefer the sweetest food available, and so if you start out using a formula with sucrose, you may also have trouble switching to a less sweet variety that gets its sugar content from lactose (the way breast milk does). Some doctors speculate that introducing sucrose early could even lead to more sugar cravings later in life.
Related: Recommended Sugar Intake
Soy-based formulas make up about 20 percent of those on the market, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), but the organization says there’s really no reason to buy them unless your child has a rare type of lactose allergy or you object to using animal protein (most formulas are made from cow milk). One of the main reasons for concern is that soybeans (and other legumes) contain high levels of phytoestrogens, which may disrupt sexual development and reproduction, thyroid function, immune function, and brain development. However, the AAP found no conclusive evidence that phytoestrogens negatively affect animals, adults, or infants.
A bigger worry may be that most soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified and drenched in pesticides. The Environmental Working Group reported in 2015 that glyphosate, a popular weed-killer deemed to be a carcinogen by the World Health Organization, was detected in infant formulas and even breast milk.
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Carrageenan is a food additive derived from seaweed that’s used as a thickening agent in a lot of foods, including ice cream, processed meats, chocolate, and some infant formulas. Some studies have linked carrageenan to gastrointestinal ulcerations and tumors in mice, and it’s thought to be a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, according to a review by the University of California Berkley. While the research is still thin, carrageenan is banned from infant formula in Europe on recommendation of both the World Health Organization and the United Nations.