By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD
Lauren specializes in plant-based living and vegan and vegetarian diets for all ages. She specializes in writing about parenting and a wide variety of health, environmental, and nutrition topics.
Choosing to feed your child powdered formula is never an easy decision, and choosing which type of milk formula to feed them can be just as difficult, especially when there are potentially harmful side-effects of popular ingredients. While we believe breastmilk is best and safest for babies, there are a variety of reasons both medical and personal that make switching to powdered formula or supplementing your child’s diet with it a necessity. Thankfully, there are many formulas to choose from so you will be able to find the right kind for your child.
Baby formula is highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the goal to provide nutrition that is as close to breastmilk as possible. It needs to provide adequate carbohydrates, protein, and fat as well as vitamins and minerals to support an infant’s growth. It takes special nutritionally dense ingredients to meet these requirements. The majority of baby formulas are created with a cow’s milk protein base. However, there are other options to choose from. A popular alternative, especially for plant-based families is soy protein based formula. However, is soy free-formula good for babies? Let’s dive into why parents may choose a soy free formula over a soy-based formula.
What is Soy-Based Baby Formula?
Soy-based baby formula is formula made from protein from soybeans and is one of the few non-dairy baby formula options available. Some infants present with an allergy to cow’s milk protein while other families choose to avoid dairy products, so an alternative ingredient is necessary. Soy protein has become the most popular option. In fact, soy-based formulas now make up an entire quarter of the baby formula market.
However, choosing a baby milk formula for your child isn’t as simple as picking just anything off the shelf. While soy milk may be a good option for families who want to avoid cow’s milk, there are a few significant reasons parents may decide to avoid soy baby formula.
1. Your Child is Allergic to Soy
One of the clearest reasons to avoid soy-based baby formula is if your child is allergic or intolerant to soy proteins. Soy is actually among one the most common allergens in infants, so feeding soy-based formula to your child should always be done with caution. You may notice the symptoms of a soy allergy quickly after feeding your child soy milk formula.
Soy allergy symptoms include:
- Trouble breathing
- Digestive Issues
- Itchy, watery, or swollen eyes
- Rapid heartbeat
Some of these symptoms may be a sign of a soy intolerance, rather than a soy allergy. While less serious, the symptoms of a soy intolerance can be extremely uncomfortable for a little one.
Soy intolerance symptoms include:
Whether your child has a soy allergy or soy intolerance, you should avoid soy-based baby formula.
2. Your Child Has Other Food Allergies
An allergy to soy may not be the only reason your child is experiencing negative side effects from soy-based baby formula. Many babies who are diagnosed with an allergy to cow’s milk or lactose intolerance also react negatively to soy. According to the latest research, cow’s milk allergy is one of the most common food allergies in infants and young children. Milk allergy symptoms can appear anywhere from a few minutes after exposure to a few hours after ingesting and can be quite severe.
Cow’s milk allergy symptoms include:
- Rash or hives
- Swelling, itching or a rash around the mouth
- Upset stomach
- Persistent gassiness
- Excessive fussiness or sleeplessness
- Frequent vomiting
- Blood in the stool
In babies, a milk allergy may affect the respiratory system as well. This can cause chronic nasal stuffiness, coughing, wheezing, or difficulty breathing.
In the case of a milk allergy or intolerance, your pediatrician may recommend a hydrolyzed protein formula. Hydrolyzed protein formulas include protein that has been broken down (hydrolyzed) into smaller pieces which makes them tolerable for babies who are allergic to regular cow’s milk or soy-based formulas.
Soy-based baby formulas also typically contain corn products as the primary source of carbohydrates. So, if you child has an allergy to corn, soy baby formula should also be avoided. Symptoms of a corn allergy are similar to those of a soy and milk allergy but it can also manifest in learning disabilities and anaphylaxis that make this allergy difficult to diagnose.
3. Your Child Was Born Premature
While soy baby formula does not seem to affect the growth and development of babies carried to term, it is not recommended for preterm babies. In fact, studies have shown that infants fed soy formula are far more likely to develop osteopenia, a condition that indicates weaker bones. This is likely due to the high presence of aluminum found in soy-based products. Aluminum is a toxic heavy metal that when ingested can affect the bone and central nervous system. This is particularly detrimental for preterm babies who are underweight or have experienced renal failure. In the case of preterm babies, milk protein-based formulas are much more effective than soy-based formulas at supporting proper growth and development.
4. The High Price
Unfortunately, soy-based baby formulas tend to cost more than traditional cow’s milk baby formulas. If you are looking for an affordable formula for your baby, soy formula or hydrolyzed protein formula may not be the answer. A cow’s milk protein formula will be the most affordable option.
5. The Presence of GMOs
GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. While the risks of genetically modified foods are unknown, they are unnatural, and thus affect the body’s microbiome (the good and bad bacteria that make up the gut) negatively. The body’s microbiome, especially that of a growing baby, is especially important. The balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut affect the immune system, neurological development, endocrine system, digestive function, and more. When a genetically modified food is introduced, it can throw off that delicate balance and cause a myriad of issues. For this reason, many parents choose to avoid GMOs in their child’s diet.
Soy crops, specifically, are on the list of crops that are highly likely to be genetically modified. For this reason, many parents choose to avoid soy-based baby formula. Some soy crops can be tested for GMOs, though, and formulas containing no traces of genetically modified ingredients will designate this with a specified label. If soy formula is your only available option, choose soy formula with an official seal on the product packaging that says certified organic and verified non-GMO.
A Soy-Free Alternative for Babies
As you ponder the reasons to choose or not to choose a soy-based baby formula, it is important to speak with your pediatrician regarding the best option for your child. If you are looking for a formula for your child that is both soy-free and dairy free, you do have another option.
For children under one year, Else is developing an infant formula. The future infant formula product will be made of plant-based ingredients and will adhere to all regulatory requirements set by the FDA for infant formulas. It will be completely free from genetically-modified ingredients as well as antibiotics, and heavy metals, unlike soy. It will be completely safe for children with dairy, soy, and corn allergies and intolerances.
This formula will contain almonds and buckwheat as its primary protein source as opposed to milk or soy. Almonds, though an allergen, are the least allergen of all tree nuts. If there is any risk or concern for a nut allergy, speak to your pediatrician first prior to starting your baby on this formula.
To learn more about the coming infant formula, read all about it here.
A Soy-Free Alternative For Toddlers
For children who are older than one year, Else offers a soy-free, toddler formula that is also free from genetically-modified ingredients, antibiotics, and heavy metals. It is safe for children that have milk, soy, gluten and corn allergies or intolerances as well.
So, what is Else made of if not animal milk or soybeans? It’s made from three whole plant ingredients: almonds, buckwheat, and tapioca. Why these three ingredients? Almonds are a great source of protein and healthy fat, plus are rich in antioxidants such as vitamin E which can help prevent disease. Buckwheat is a gluten-free carbohydrate that is rich in fiber and can help aid digestion and manage blood sugar. Tapioca is easy to digest, unlike soy and dairy, and is a good source of calcium and iron, which are essential nutrients your growing child needs. These three ingredients make up 92% of the formula, the remaining part of which is made up of additional vitamins and minerals to support your child as they develop.
As you seek a soy-free formula for your baby or toddler, remember that even non-soy baby formulas can cause allergic reactions, contain genetically modified, or synthetic ingredients, and may not suit your lifestyle preferences.
Look to Else for a fully plant-based, clean label, and nutritiously dense formula that can provide your child with everything they need to grow and develop.
The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.