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Hard to Swallow

The Truth About Infant Formula

Infant-formula manufacturers are constantly adding supplements to their products and charging a premium price for what they claim is an improved formula. But medical evidence doesn’t support these claims, so consumers have no assurances that these products are beneficial to infants.

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Rick Gomez/Masterfile

Eloise Zapalac’s heart ached as her daughter, Aubrina, wailed last September while doctors drew the 3-month-old’s blood and catheterized her for a urine sample. For days before the doctor visit, Aubrina had suffered from incessant diarrhea, had spit up everything that she ate and had lost weight.

Zapalac spent 8 hours in the emergency room that day and rushed her child twice more to the hospital, but it took a news announcement for Zapalac to find out what was ailing her daughter. In late September, Abbott Laboratories recalled 5 million cans of its Similac infant formula—the brand that Zapalac used—after beetles and their larvae were discovered in the cans.

Zapalac switched her baby to a store brand, and within 3 days, Aubrina was fine. But Zapalac wasn’t.

“I’m still angry,” she says. “This [contamination] can’t be allowed to happen. Something has to change.”

Actually, a lot needs to change when it comes to the way that infant formula is marketed, sold and regulated. The Similac incident capped off a decade in which the safety of infant formula was repeatedly called into question by recalls.

And the biggest controversy in the infant-formula industry today concerns the increasing number of ingredients that companies add and the claims that the added ingredients produce numerous infant benefits, including improved gut health and brain development.

Abbott Laboratories, Mead Johnson and Nestlé tell us that their research supports the efficacy of these supplements, but no independent medical evidence substantiates that. That hasn’t stopped the three companies, which control 90 percent of the market, ­­from charging more for their latest infant formulas and aggressively marketing them in a campaign that, critics say, blurs the line between the proven benefits of breast milk and infant formula. Some critics even say Food and Drug Administration is ill-equipped to sufficiently evaluate the safety of these new ingredients. That raises the possibility that babies who are given infant formula might suffer adverse long-term effects.

PLENTY OF SCRUTINY? More than half of all U.S. babies consume infant formula. For many of these babies, infant formula provides the sole source of sustenance for the first 4 to 6 months of their lives, when their immune systems are immature.

Infant formula is said to be among FDA’s most strictly regulated foods. Manufacturers are required to test every batch that they produce to ensure that it contains FDA-mandated minimum levels—and, in some cases, maximum levels—of 29 nutrients. FDA inspects all infant-formula-manufacturing plants annually. It takes infant-formula samples from those to perform nutrient and microbiological tests.

Nonetheless, there were 17 recalls in the past decade. The causes included the presence of bits of metal and plastic and a deadly pathogen (enterobacter sakazakii).

In the past 8 years, acrylamide (a neurotoxin and carcinogen), melamine (an industrial chemical) and perchlorate (an ingredient in rocket fuel) have been detected in infant formulas that are manufactured in the United States. However, International Formula Council (IFC), which represents U.S. infant-formula-makers, maintains that these findings are of no consequence. Melamine and perchlorate are present in the environment and can make their way into infant formula at low levels, says Mardi Mountford, who is the executive vice president of IFC. Acrylamide, she says, naturally occurs during the processing of some foods. Neither acrylamide, melamine nor perchlorate is dangerous to infants at the levels at which these chemicals are occasionally found in infant formula, she says. FDA agrees.

But reports that we read and scientists with whom we spoke insist that any amount of either of those three materials should be considered unsafe for infants, whose bodies and brains still are developing and who consume much more food relative to their body weight than adults do. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that if perchlorate-contaminated formula were mixed with tap water (some of which also has been found to contain perchlorate), babies could be ingesting dangerous levels of the chemical.

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