The Number of Ingredients in Breastmilk Vs. Formula Will Surprise You

I love when I can write about happy things -- like the cute WIC website or nursing moms gathering all together -- I like the fun stuff, I really do. But sometimes I have to talk about tough things, too -- things like breastfeeding. This is a topic that's difficult to talk about because it kicks up so many emotions, pitting moms who may feel guilt and depression about the issue on one side against moms who may be proud and sometimes even arrogant about it on the other.

Thanks to a student project for the Breastfeeding Course for Health Care Providers, for once I have the opportunity to just talk about breast milk -- not the choice to breastfeed, not moms who may or may not breastfeed -- but just the liquid itself. The students put together the list you see here (I had to shrink it so it would fit). The column on the left shows the ingredients in breast milk. And on the right? Ingredients in formula. As you can see, breast milk contains an amazingly long list of ingredients.


One of my favorite things about breast milk is its ability to heal so many things. The live antibodies that help baby fight off diseases can even be used topically -- for cuts, the sinuses (yeah, up the nose!), ear infections, cure for pink eye, and even as acne control. I know that sounds crazy to some people, but the healing possibilities for breast milk are long and really awesome.

Even cooler, we've seen lab situations where breast milk helps protect newborns from E. coli (well, colostrol cells, those in colostrum). Not only that, the HAMLET cells found in a tummy full of breast milk can kill cancer cells -- up to 40 different types that we know of -- and, unlike many other treatments, does not harm any non-cancerous cells. Come on, that's just awesome.

My point is: Breast milk itself is an absolutely amazing substance. It's part of the reason why medical organizations strongly recommend that every mother breastfeed (or at least try). The stuff is good enough that even one feeding can make a huge difference for the newborn; and, the longer you go, the better. Even if the child is just getting one breast milk meal a day and the rest are formula, that's still very important and beneficial. It doesn't HAVE to be all or nothing (though there are some disadvantages to adding formula, both for the baby's tummy and your own supply). Any breast milk is better than none.

My point here isn't to ream on formula feeding. It's really not. My point is to say that formula is fabulous when it's needed. Despite my very numerous and passionate issues with the marketing and misinformation out there related to formula, I don't have issues with the product itself. In fact, the product itself can be a life-saver -- literally. And I fully believe that the scientists working to develop formula honestly care about the babies and try to do the best they possibly can to make product as good as possible.

But put the ingredients of breast milk and formula side-by-side, and breast milk wins by a long shot. No matter how hard scientists try, there's still so much about breast milk that we just don't know and cannot replicate. When it comes to discussions about breast milk and formula, it's not about the moms who use them: It's about two liquids, one that is trying its damnedest to be the other but just isn't quite there yet. And it just takes one look at that list above to see that while we've come a hell of a long way since the condensed milk and corn syrup days, we've still got a long way to go.

Did you have any idea how many ingredients either contained?


Image via BC Baby Friendly Network

Read More >