Why Does All U.S. Infant Formula Contain Hydrogenated Oils?

The infant formula shortage has highlighted a nutritional secret: Our infant formula is awful.

By Alina Clough3 min read
shutterstock 2129831132
Shutterstock/Natalia Bostan

Lobbying dynamics have pushed for babies to drink more formula and for that formula to be required to have hydrogenated oils, while being protectionist against other countries’ safe products. Does the FDA really care more about American manufacturers than American babies?

It’s no secret that the U.S. economy has been taking a turn for the worse. One of the first signs of the coming recession was felt by young families in the form of a baby formula shortage that has now lasted well over a year. Still, there’s more to the shortage than meets the eye. This isn’t just a case of producers not being able to keep up with demand – it’s the effect of overly restrictive American import regulations. These regulations should be in place for quality control, to keep American babies from ingesting formula that isn’t up to par. The problem? It’s doing the exact opposite.

The best baby formula is overseas, and American babies aren’t allowed to have it. Because of FDA regulations, which have been heavily influenced by lobbyists, U.S. baby formula has a web of entangled restrictions surrounding it, and they aren’t good ones. The FDA has been heavily influenced by lobbyists to increase the amount of hydrogenated oils, also called “seed oils,” in baby formula, reducing the quality in order to appease producers. Meanwhile, U.S. protectionism is so stark that even during the recent formula shortage, it was still illegal for mothers to import formula. Why is the FDA letting America’s infants go hungry and malnourished?

All U.S. baby formula has hydrogenated oils in order to meet the FDA’s fatty acid profile requirements.

A Financial Formula

Who wants hydrogenated oils in our babies’ food? Well, a lot of people. For one, the formula manufacturers have long been pushing the narrative that it’s just as good, if not even better than breastfeeding, which just isn’t true. While many women have no choice but to rely on formula for a host of medical and personal reasons, public health experts say this doesn’t change the fact that, when possible, it’s better for babies to be breastfed. “Babies are most likely to survive and grow to their full potential when breastfed,” says Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, a professor at Yale’s school of public health. “Yet, globally, many women who wish to breastfeed face multiple barriers ... in the context of exploitative marketing tactics of the commercial milk formula industry.”

Formula companies have made misleading claims about formula being similar to breast milk and even boosting a baby’s IQ, something experts say is capitalizing on parents’ care for their children. “The sale of commercial milk formula is a multi-billion-dollar industry that uses political lobbying alongside a sophisticated and highly effective marketing playbook to turn the care and concern of parents and caregivers into a business opportunity,” a professor at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child, and Adolescent Health says. Still, with 75% of babies needing formula at some point in their infancy, simply switching to breast milk isn’t an option for most families, meaning the quality of formula matters greatly, and profit incentives are standing in the way.

A Seedy Enterprise

A large part of these incentives involves hydrogenated oil manufacturers looking to find more uses for “seed oils.” As a result, all U.S. baby formula has these oils in order to meet the FDA’s fatty acid profile requirements. The FDA claims this is all in the name of nutrition, but many parents are left to wonder why other countries, namely those in the European Union, seem to be fine without them. Although baby formula in the U.S. isn’t technically required to have vegetable oils, or seed oils, in it, FDA regulations are written in such a way that makes it pretty much impossible to meet guidelines without them. Two moms looking to improve the state of American baby formula found this out the hard way.

Parents are now realizing the ban on foreign formulas isn’t because they’re dangerous.

“Bobbie,” an all-natural formula startup, looking to bring all-natural European standard infant formula to the American market, initially looked like it was going to give big American manufacturers a run for their money. Laura Modi, one of the co-founders, said her own need for infant formula had inspired the company: “Here we were with our first kid, turning around the back of the can and going, ‘Why is corn syrup the first ingredient that I’m going to give my week-old baby? Doesn’t that feel wrong? It’s something I wouldn’t feed myself!’” That is, until the FDA cracked down on her product, forcing her to issue a recall on the formula and eventually add in two different seed oils to re-enter the market.

While Bobbie is an important step as the only pesticide-free formula in the U.S., the formula shortage and import restrictions mean that many mothers are still turning to a black market in order to get European infant formula. Especially in cases of allergens or other health concerns, many babies can’t simply substitute in whichever formula is available. The Biden administration did alleviate the worst of the shortage by temporarily relaxing import standards from other countries, but it caused mothers to wonder: Why did they exist in the first place? “I think a lot of parents ... are starting to wonder: was the FDA actually concerned about what was safest and healthiest for my infant, or were they concerned about protecting the interests of American formula manufacturers?" says Mallory Whitmore, pointing out that parents now realize the ban on foreign formulas isn’t because they’re dangerous. "So the question is, 'Are these formulas going to stay or not?'"

Closing Thoughts

There’s no going back after parents have realized that the FDA regulations around formula had nothing to do with their babies’ safety. Various lobbies have conspired to make sure that moms are convinced to feed their babies more formula, and for that formula to be full of hydrogenated oils. All this despite worse nutrition and penalizing moms who want different for their babies. It seems that the FDA really does care more about American manufacturers than American babies.

Love Evie? Sign up for our newsletter and get curated content weekly!