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.
Soy-based baby formula is made using soy protein and other ingredients. It was first developed in 1909 and has dominated the dairy-free baby formula marketplace ever since. In the United States, there are currently no other plant-based baby formula ingredients available. However, there are a number of reasons why soy-based formulas may not end up being the ideal option for your baby.
Below are 5 reasons you may want to consider choosing a soy-free formula for your baby.
1. Your child has a soy intolerance or allergy.
One of the primary reasons many parents evaluate the protein source in their baby’s formula is because of intolerance or allergy concerns. If your child is suspected to have a soy intolerance, or has been diagnosed with a soy allergy, choosing a soy-free formula is certainly appropriate. Symptoms of a potential intolerance to soy formula can include diarrhea, fussiness, bloating, vomiting, and rash.
It’s important to note that some babies who have an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk proteins are also unable to tolerate soy protein. As such, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that if your baby has cow's milk or lactose intolerance, choosing a soy-based formula may also not be the answer. The best option for your baby should be discussed with your child’s pediatrician and potentially a pediatric allergen specialist to determine the best approach to finding the right formula.
2. You may be concerned about your child’s exposure to GMOs or aluminum.
The majority of soy crops grown around the world are genetically modified. Many parents prefer to avoid GMOs in their baby’s diet. One way to minimize or avoid exposure to these is to buy certified organic, non-GMO verified soy formula, which can be identified by an official seal on the product packaging. Alternatively, choosing a soy-free baby formula is another way to avoid GMOs.
Aluminum is a naturally-occurring heavy metal that can accumulate in the body and have neurotoxic effects. Concern around the aluminum content of soy formulas was first circulated in the nineties, with studies finding that while breast milk contains 4-65 ng/ml of aluminum, soy formulas can contain anywhere from 600-1300 ng/ml. This is primarily a result of the mineral salts used in formula production.
However, while aluminum content continues to be a concern, research indicates that babies with healthy functioning kidneys are at low risk for aluminum toxicity from soy-based formulas. Still, if your infant has impaired kidneys, choosing a soy-free formula may offer peace of mind.
3. Soy-based formula may contain more added sugar than you prefer.
Added sugar, meaning sugar that is not naturally-occurring in foods and ingredients, is not an essential nutrient. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for children over the age of two years, stating that, “Eating and drinking too much added sugar puts kids at risk for obesity, tooth decay, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease…”
Before two years, infants should be avoiding as much added sugar as possible, which can be hidden in many things, including baby formula. Research suggests that introducing added sugar to infants early on can have adverse effects when it comes to chronic disease and eating habits later in life.
Interestingly, a 2002 study found that flavor preferences later in life were associated with the types of formula used in infancy. While the study didn’t examine added sugar specifically, it did find that children who used soy formula were more likely to prefer bitter apple juice over sour flavors or broccoli, compared to infants fed milk-based or protein hydrolysate formulas.
4. Many soy-based formulas contain corn, which is not appropriate for babies with corn allergy or intolerance.
Looking at the ingredient label is an important first step when evaluating any baby formula option. Per product labeling guidelines, ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight. This means that the first ingredient listed is present in the largest amount, and the last ingredient is present in the smallest.
You may find corn listed as the first ingredient in many soy-based baby formulas, as it’s often the primary carbohydrate (energy) source. This may be listed as corn solids, corn maltodextrin, corn syrup, or corn syrup solids.
If your baby has a sensitivity to corn, you might consider looking for a corn-free soy-based formula, or choosing a soy-free formula instead.
5. Your baby has congenital hypothyroidism.
When a child is born with this condition, he or she lacks thyroid hormone at birth. Symptoms may not be apparent right away, but often appear in infants as prolonged jaundice, sleeping more than usual, and difficulty eating. How does this relate to soy-based infant formula? If your baby is diagnosed with congenital hypothyroidism, research suggests that choosing a soy-free formula may be beneficial.
In two studies, the authors found that infants with congenital hypothyroidism who were fed soy formula experienced a prolonged increase in thyroid-stimulating hormone compared to babies fed soy-free formula, which complicated management of the condition. They concluded that these infants may benefit from a soy-free formula, closer monitoring, and a potential need for medication dosing adjustments to manage symptoms.
What About Soy and Estrogen?
It’s worth noting that some parents may be wondering whether to avoid soy formula due to concerns around isoflavones in soy, plant compounds that have long been accused of promoting cancer and reproductive issues due to similar structure to estrogen.
On the contrary, soy isoflavones act and bind differently than the hormone estrogen in the body. Research has found that moderate consumption of soy foods is more likely to have a protective effect against cancers later, especially when eaten earlier in life, and can even support healthy fertility. Furthermore, babies who consume soy formula are no more likely to experience reproductive issues.
Choosing a soy-free formula may mean that a cow’s milk-based formula or a protein hydrolysate specialized formula are the best choice for some families. However, Else Nutrition is excited to be bringing another soy-free option for babies to the market that is clean label, organic, non-GMO and made with minimally-processed, highly nutritious, whole plant ingredients.
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.