Is European baby formula really better?

Some moms are buying their babies' formula from Europe to avoid pesticides and added sugars. But is it worth it?

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When Toronto mom Alison Zanini* began looking for the optimal formula for her five-month-old son, Jonathan, to help supplement her low milk supply, she looked online, asked friends and talked to her doctor for recommendations. Ultimately, she chose a European formula because she liked the short ingredient list and organic certification. Since it’s not available in stores, she’s been buying it online for the past three months—except for when it’s been out of stock and she’s had to find other ways to get it.

In recent years, there’s been a surge of interest in European-made formulas, with many new parents discussing them in forums and several Canadian companies offering them online. Bridget Young, research assistant professor at University of Rochester’s Department of Pediatrics, runs BabyFormulaExpert.com and says the boost in popularity is due to the perception that European formulas are higher quality and better for babies. But are they really worth it?

European baby formulas versus Canadian formulas

In Europe and North America, baby formulas are the most regulated food on grocery store shelves. “Both will grow a baby perfectly fine,” says Young. Both are also safe in terms of sterile manufacturing environments and packaging.

But some parents are concerned that Canadian formulas may contain pesticides, genetically modified ingredients, added sugar and chemicals, since there are no regulations restricting these.  That’s why people turn to European brands.

Two moms breastfeeding on a couchHow to combine breastfeeding and bottle-feeding The European Commission requires that baby formula contain no detectable levels of pesticides and no added sucrose (sugar), though they may contain added lactose (milk sugar). Some of the European formulas by popular brands like Hipp and Holle go beyond organic—they are Demeter biodynamic, which means their ingredients are sourced via farming practices that are better for soil quality, ecosystem preservation and animal care, and have no GMOs.

In terms of actual nutrient values, Young says there are only very small differences between European and North American formulas. While nutrients like protein are consistent, some formulas—both Canadian and European—will have extras, such as probiotics for digestive health, and omega-3 fat (DHA) for brain and eye development, which is a vital addition if mom and baby don’t eat fish. If you’re not sure which one to choose (because there are so many options!) talk to a healthcare expert about your baby’s specific needs.

Sugar in baby formulas

All formulas contain carbohydrates, some in the form of different sugars. Make sure to pay attention to the source. Many parents prefer formulas made with lactose (milk sugar) as the carb source, since it most closely mimics what’s found in human breastmilk and is easy for a baby to digest. You can find both European and Canadian formulas made with lactose.

Some brands add corn syrup or maltodextrin, which are corn-based sugars and starches that are safe but perceived by some to be less desirable because they’re highly processed. Many parents avoid formulas made with sucrose (white sugar). It’s sweeter than lactose, giving baby an unnecessary head start in eating sugary foods. Sucrose is banned in European baby formulas. While it is found in some Canadian formula, you can choose one without sucrose.

Why Canadian ingredients labels look different

Zanini says she chose her formula for its short ingredient list, which she felt was better than the Canadian formula labels with their hard-to-pronounce chemicals.

But the scary-sounding words are often chemical names of vitamins, minerals, probiotics and other ingredients. For example, on European formula ingredient lists, you’ll see “iron, vitamin E and vitamin C.” In Canada, the same ingredients are listed as “ferrous sulphate, DL-alpha-tocopheryl-acetate and ascorbyl palmitate.” The names sound ominous, but are nothing to fear.

Still not sure which formula to choose? Sometimes, cost alone may dictate your decision. European formulas are more expensive than basic Canadian formulas, but cost about the same as Canadian organic or speciality formulas.

Sourcing European baby formulas in Canada

Since Zanini began using European formula, she’s found it’s sometimes out of stock or takes a week to ship. Once, she ran out and drove two hours to get some from a mom she met in a Facebook group.

If you order a European formula, find an online Canadian supplier with a local storage warehouse to ensure they have enough to fill your order. Before your buy, read the frequently asked questions and inquire about their importing practices. You want to choose a company that ships by air. Young says small orders may travel by sea and degrade in quality due to excessive heat on cargo ships.

It’s a good idea to order in advance so you don’t run out. Sometimes orders get stopped at customs, or there are problems from the distributor in Europe. “Shortages happen all of the time,” says Young. “If you use a less common European formula, you risk learning that it won’t be back in stock for months, and it’s not easy to change formula after something works well for your baby.”

Rest assured that whichever you choose, Canadian and European formulas will both nourish your baby.

*Name has been changed.

Read more:
The dos and don’ts of safe formula feeding

A shocking number of baby formulas contain arsenic

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