Thursday, March 8, 2012

Baby Formula: The Dilemma of Science-Food

When it comes to the wild and woolly world of nourishing a baby, there are two main options. Breast milk is a popular way to go, but it's not for everyone. As with anything that's unadulterated and natural, breast feeding is, to many people, frightening and repulsive. A lot of folks feel more comfortable choosing an alternative that’s synthetic and mass-produced.

That brings us to the other choice: commercially available products used by many parents and/or guardians to either supplement or replace breast-milk.

I am of course talking about "formula"—baby formula, that is (not to be confused with Grecian Formula, algebraic formulas, or Formula One Racing)—the only drink-mix on the market targeted at infants. While its main component is milk, formula has an ingredient list that's literally as long as your arm. And when I say "literally" I don't mean "figuratively":

The contents enumerated on this tub of Enfamil brand formula sitting on my kitchen counter form a block of text 11 lines long and 2 inches wide. Stretched end to end that's 22 inches of "who knows what."

As you can see, this formula stuff is filled with compounds containing words like phosphate, citrate, chloride and palmitate. Some of the ingredients even have footnotes, like "A source of docosahexaenoic acid."

What this means is that I have no idea what the fuck I am putting into my baby. These could all be things that are designed to turn her into some kind of mutant automaton fulfilling the orders of our future alien overlords—an unwitting cyborg sleeper-cell that will join up with other formula-fed child-bots when coded radio-signals are sent out to activate them.

It's strange that almost from birth a hell of a lot of our babies are being pumped full of so many weird food additives. Maybe I should take it as a small consolation that most of these ingredients—9 out of the 11 lines, or 18 inches—are listed after the "And less than 1%" qualifier. Are these mostly preservatives and thickeners and junk like that? What would happen if they were left out? Would the formula turn into some kind of lumpy goo, or burst into flames upon making contact with the air? Seriously, any of those ingredients could be a flame retardant, as far as I can tell. And baby-products are big on flame-retardant these days.

Anyway, apart from all those little one-percent items, what's really the difference between formula and cow's milk?

Well, the price, for one thing.

Actually, as I understand it, human babies can't get all of their "nutrition" (that's science-talk for "vitamins and junk") from cows' milk. Hence scientists or food-wizards or whoever have "formulated" a beverage that will provide all of the nutrition of human milk. And it took almost 2 feet of fine-print ingredients to do so.

Though the more I think about all the ways modern medicine and science have extended life (i.e., protecting us from diseases, infection, sea-monsters, etc.) I have to wonder: Can plain-old human milk really provide the same level of nutrition-laden benefits as the laboratory-enhanced ingredients found in formula? Maybe scientists have created something better than what Mother Nature provided—it wouldn't be the first time. While this could well be the case, if you consider how processed most of our foods are these days it's safe to assume that mothers who breast feed are already ingesting so many weird chemicals that they are likely synthesizing all the additives that their babies could ever possibly need (you know—preservatives, caking agents, heavy metals), and passing them along to them through their breast milk.

Which means whether our babies are fed breast milk or formula, we can rest assured that they will grow up healthy and strong. And possibly cyborg.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love some of the comments on your website. I gave my daughter Similac Soy 7 years ago after I stopped breastfeeding and while she thrived, I discovered with my son I wanted to do something more organic / holistic when I could not exclusively breastfeed. My babysitter found a company called Mt. Capra that has a wonderful powdered goat milk with the worlds easiest goat milk baby formula recipe. 5 ingredients, all easy to pronounce, and then add in your vitamins and probiotics. So, so happy. The kid is thriving.