A safe alternative to cow’s milk-based
by Laura Scott (MSc Nutrition)
VVF Snr Nutritionist
Breast is best but for mums who need an
infant formula feed, soya-based formulas are a safe and
nutritious alternative to cow’s milk-based ones.
is Always Best
Breast is best for babies and all mothers should be encouraged
to breastfeed. Breastmilk is the most perfectly designed
food in the world and gives babies the very best start in
life. Not only does it provide all the nutritional needs
for very young infants, it also helps establish emotional
bonds. The World Health Organisation recommends that most
women should exclusively breastfeed their babies for the
first six months of life. However, for various good reasons,
bottle feeding may in some cases prove to be necessary.
Animal-free Soya-Based Infant Formulas
For vegetarian and vegan mothers soya-based infant formulas are suitable substitutes where breastfeeding is not possible. Currently there are no completely animal-free soya-based infant formula suitable for mothers who wish to bring their baby up on a vegan diet. Vegetarian soya-based infant formulas (the only animal derived ingredient being vitamin D3) are InfaSoy from Cow & Gate and Wysoy from SMA Nutrition. Soya-based infant formulas are nutritionally complete and comply with strict UK and EC legislation which specifies the nutritional composition of these formula feeds. Babies must NEVER be given normal adult cow's milk or normal adult soya milk until after the age of a year as these do not provide all the nutrients a baby needs.
The Safety of Soya-Based Infant Formulas
Millions of infants
worldwide have safely been fed soya-based infant formulas
over the last 60 years (1). Discussions in the media surrounding
the hormonal effects of soya and soya-based infant formulas
have however caused unnecessary concern to some parents.
Two areas that have been highlighted are the role that soya
may play in sexual development (2) and immune function (3)
– the system that helps the body fight off infection. The
debate has centered around the actions of compounds in
soya beans called isoflavones or
phytoestrogens. These compounds behave
like oestrogen, the female hormone, but
are in fact very weak – between 1,000 and
10,000 times weaker than oestrogen. Far
from upsetting oestrogen levels in the
body isoflavones seem to normalise them
and there have been numerous papers
detailing the health-promoting effects of
soya bean consumption. Indeed Cancer
Research UK has highlighted a very
important study showing that women who
eat a lot of soya are 60% less likely to
have the ‘dense’ tissue associated with breast
cancer than those who ate the least (4).
Much of the work that has thrown up concerns about soya
involves the use of animals and isolation of particular components
of the soya bean itself – eg the phytoestrogens it contains.
There are two major arguments as to why such research may
have limited application to humans. Firstly, using animals
as models for humans is very unreliable – results that show
up in animals may not translate to humans. Secondly, eating
soya or feeding it as a formula feed to babies is not the
same as isolating and injecting the chemicals it contains.
The body often deactivates the chemicals that are eaten or
converts them to another form (5). This means that injecting
a chemical into an animal is likely to have a more potent
effect than on a baby who consumes soya-based infant formula
Against the background of a small number of animal-based
studies there is a large amount of scientific literature
attesting to the fact that soya-based infant formulas are
safe feeding options. A literature review in 1998 of all
the major studies on soya-based infant formulas found no
evidence of hormonal effects in adults who had consumed these
soya formulas in infancy. The authors concluded that soya-based
infant formulas continue to be a safe feeding option for
infants (1). Similarly a review in 2002 reported that recent
data suggest that there are no long-term adverse effects
of early exposure to soya formula through young adulthood
(7). An important study in 2001 looked at measures of sexual
development in adults who, as infants, had been fed soya-based
infant formulas. For more than 30 outcomes measured – eg
height, weight, effects on puberty or fertility – no evidence
of problems with general health or sexual development in
the subjects was found (8).
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is in the process of looking
at all the major issues surrounding dietary phytoestrogens,
including soya infant formula. At the present time the FSA
line on this issue still stands – that where parents have
been advised by their doctor or health professional to feed
their baby soya-based infant formula, they should continue
to do so (9).
The Government’s Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals
in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) published
a report in May 2003 on Phytoestrogens and Health. The purpose
of this report was to consider and advise on the health implications
of exposure to phytoestrogens in the diet through the review
of published scientific research and the FSA’s Phytoestrogen
research programme. Page 10 of this report states that: “The
Working Group considered that the findings from these studies
do not provide definitive evidence that phytoestrogens present
in soya-based infant formula can adversely affect the health
of infants” (10).
Of course soya is not a natural food for babies but then
again nor is cow’s milk. Cow’s milk is meant
for calves, not humans, and is itself loaded with oestrogens
– and not the mild ones derived from plants but potent oestrogens
from another mammal. Cow’s milk is also implicated
in a whole range of health problems in children such as digestive
upsets, ear infections, skin conditions, tends to interfere
with iron absorption and has virtually no iron of its own.
The world’s leading expert on baby and child care -
Dr Benjamin Spock (1904-1998) – advocated a plant-based diet
for everyone including infants and children. He states in
his child care book (a book that has sold over 50 million
copies worldwide) that “non-dairy milk, particularly
soya milk, has real advantages over cow's milk and other
dairy products” (14).
Aluminium in Soya-Based Infant Formulas
Aluminium is the earth’s most abundant metal and
is naturally found in drinking water and all animal and plant
foods. Although levels are higher in soya-based infant formulas
than in breastmilk, the levels are considered safe and any
risk therefore remains theoretical (11).
Soya-Based Infant Formulas and Dental Health
grow up with healthy teeth and gums is, of course, vitally
important. All infant formulas must comply with standards
laid down by UK Regulations which specify minimum and maximum
amounts of carbohydrate (energy). Most formulas use lactose
– the sugar in cow’s milk – as
the source of this carbohydrate. For parents who do not wish
to use a product containing lactose a suitable alternative
carbohydrate must therefore be used. Glucose syrup is the
carbohydrate used in soya-based infant formulas. Glucose
syrup is often confused with sugars but in fact comes from
corn starch and is not the same as glucose or syrup. It is
mainly made up of beneficial complex (starchy) carbohydrates
not simple carbohydrates (sugars) which are known to be harmful
to teeth. Tooth decay can be the result of many factors,
not only the presence of sugars in a food or drink. Research
has shown that soya-based infant formulas are no more likely
to cause tooth decay than cow’s-based infant formulas
(12). The most important factor appears to be how they are
consumed. Any food or drink containing sugars should not
have frequent or prolonged contact with teeth and trainer
cups should be used as soon as a baby is able to drink this
way. Thus if normal weaning practices are adopted, soya-based
infant formulas should not cause harm to teeth (13).
- Breast is always best.
- Babies should NEVER be given normal adult cow’s
milk or normal adult soya milk.
- Numerous studies demonstrate the safety and health benefits
- Aluminium in soya-based infant formula is not a cause
- Normal weaning practices ensure that soya-based infant
formulas will not harm teeth.
- Studies looking at humans suggest that the use of soya-based
infant formula continues to be a safe feeding option for
- Klein KO, 1998. Isoflavones, soya-based infant
formulas and relevance to endocrine function. Nutrition
- Sharpe RM et al, 2002. Infant feeding with soy
formula milk: effects on the testis and on blood testosterone
levels in marmoset monkeys during the period of neonatal
testicular activity. Human Reproduction;17(7):1692-1703.
- Yellayi S et al, 2002. The phytoestrogen genistein
induces thymic and immune changes: a human health concern?
- Jakes RW et al, 2002. Mammographic Parenchymal
Patterns and Self-Reported Soya Intake in Singapore Chinese
Women. Cancer Epid. Biomarkers and Prevention; 11(7):608-613.
- Randerson J, (Quoting soya expert Stephen Barnes.)
25.05.02. Baby Milk Blues. New Scientist: 9.
- Editorial, FSA: Soya Baby Milk is Safe. June 2002.
Natural Products Magazine.
- Badger TM et al, 2002. The health consequences
of early soy consumption. J. Nutr.;132:559S-565S.
- Strom BL et al, 2001. Exposure to soya-based formula
in infancy and endocrinological and reproductive outcomes
in young adulthood. JAMA;286 (7): 807-814.
- FSA Position on Soya-Based Infant Formula – E-mail
communication with Jeffery B, Senior Scientist, FSA.13th
- Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer
Products and the Environment (COT) – Phytoestrogens and
Health. p.10. Crown Copyright May 2003.
- BNF Briefing Paper on Vegetarianism 1995.
- Moynihan PJ et al, 1996. A comparison of the relative
acidogenic potential of infant milk and soya infant formula:
a plaque pH study. Intl J. of Paediatric Dentistry; 6:177-181.
- Hood S, July 2000. Vegan nutrition for infants,
children and adolescents. The Nutrition Practitioner;2.2:60-61.
- Spock B. 1999. Dr Spock's Baby and Child Care.
p.173 & 177. (Simon & Schuster).