When I was growing up and my mom had a kid-health question, she asked our pediatrician. One thing thats interesting about being a parent in the Internet age is that we all do our research online. Sure, we put in calls to the doctor (sometimes), but even then, we triple check and cross reference answers (often while waiting for the call back). This is a blessing, but it can also lead to confusion and dissemination of questionable information. Not that all doctors always have the answers or are even up on the latest research. But thats another post.
I bring this up because The Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit government watchdog known for its dedication to, as they put it, the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community, put out a release earlier this week stating that brand name organic infant formulas contain ingredients processed with a toxic chemical. You can only imagine the mass hysteria in my email inbox. Many of the parents had already started to do their own research on the chemical, on the Institute, and more. I wanted to dig through the release to get to the bottom of it, but the other parents comments and questions confused me and sidetracked me. Eventually I sat down with the material, read it, and called up the Cornucopia Institute to ask some questions.
Before I go any further with this, I should mention that part of my fear when I first saw that toxins-in-infant-formula headline is that the organic movement would lose families that are just tiptoeing in. That kills me. Many parents who dont self-identify as green, or who don't eat organic themselves, go out of their way to use organic formula. Its a great crossover product. These were the people who seemed most disturbed to me by this report. Angry, almost. Like theyre pissed off they have to buy the organic stuff in the first place and therefore it has to be totally perfect or else. I made it my goal to try to explain this release in a way that wouldnt make them turn away from organics.
So what Ive been trying to (calmly) explain to them is that The Cornucopia Institute isnt anti-organics. Not in the least. This is actually a very pro-organic attempt to get the USDA to adhere to its own strict standards. This release isnt really the sort of thing meant to be read by the average parent-consumer. Its inside baseball, a watchdog group trying to ensure that USDA organic standards arent being compromised by big business. Which is precisely why there is no advice in the release for parents who happen to be using this formula on what else to useone of the main causes of confusion around this issue.
If you only want to know what formula to use, scroll down; Ive detailed that for you below. If you want to know more about what The Cornucopia Institute is claiming and doing, keep reading. (Or, even better, read their full report or commentary about it or the legal complaint.
Here are the basics: The Institute has been working on this for a good long while but filed a legal complaint with the USDA recently. Theyre demanding the USDA enforce organic regulations that prohibit toxic solvents from being used in the production of organic food.
The solvent in question is hexane. Cornucopia says organic baby formula and other food manufacturers are using hexane-extracted omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (DHA/ARA) derived from algae and soil fungus: Organic products with the prohibited fatty acid supplements include Horizon Organic milk with DHA (Dean Foods) and organic infant formulas, including Similac Organic (Abbott Laboratories), Earth's Best (Hain Celestial), and Bright Beginnings Organic (PBM Products.)
The fatty acids are said to help with brain and eye development, but there is some question as to whether or not these vegetarian extracted versions do. These supplements are produced by Martek Biosciences Corporation and extracted ... with the use of a highly explosive neurotoxic petrochemical solvent, hexane. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration lists hexane as a serious hazard to worker health and safety, and the Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a hazardous air pollutant. The National Organic Program strictly prohibits its use in the processing of organic foods and ingredients.
According to FDA reports Cornucopia obtained via a freedom of information request, formula both conventional and organic, the reports didnt differentiate between the two containing DHA/ARA has sickened infants (side effects include diarrhea and vomiting). Theyre focusing on organic formula and not on conventional because their goal is to shed light on the fact that companies are breaking organic rules and the USDA is looking the other way.
One thing as a mom that seems crucial to highlight is that only 98 formula fed babies have required medical treatment or hospitalization since 2002. These could be underreported statistics (Cornucopia is calling for more parents to let them know if similar reactions happened in their kids), but its a relatively small number. Also, the cause and effect wasnt always clear. As any mom knows, stomach things happen often.
It is compelling that the Institute says the claim that these added oils are good for babies eye and brain development doesnt have strong science behind it. This may be a marketing gimmick, but it has been a coup. Parents like the claim so much that its now nearly impossible to find a formula without the added oils. Thats insane to me. As someone who eats a whole foods diet and doesnt pay too much attention to the nutrient of the moment, I do tend to think of omega fatty acids the same way I thought of oat bran when it was in its a (good for you) fad. I eat them, sure, but Im not going out of my way to do so. That theyve made their way into all formula is a bit shocking.
The goal of Cornucopias complaint is several-fold. They want the FDA to look into the illnesses and, if the findings are consistent, to require a label on products containing the oils warning of possible adverse reactions. They also want the Federal Trade Commission to warn companies about overstating the benefits of the added oils. Besides asking the USDA to honor its own standards, theyre also calling for an investigation of the largest corporate organic certifier, Quality Assurance International (QAI).
Ok, now for the consumer portion of this post:
Keep using organic formula (and organic everything for that matter!) over conventional, which may contain these oils too along with genetically modified ingredients (especially soy if youre using soy) or hormones and the like. Organic is still superior, says Charlotte Vallaeys, farm and food analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. Our legal complaint is for the organic because organic foods are more highly regulated. Its stricter.
The only organic formula left on the market that doesnt contain these oils, according to Vallaeys, is Baby's Only. Its marketed as a toddler formula. When I was reporting The Complete Organic Pregnancy there were only two organic formulas on the market (amazing how many new ones have gone on sale in two years time!) and this was one of them. The company said then that they marketed it as a toddler formula because they wanted to promote breastfeeding for infants. It does contain the 23 ingredients formulas are required to contain read the label and/or have your pediatrician read the label. It may be just what youre looking for.
Call the companies and ask them to put their old formulas that dont contain the oils back on the market, and/or to find a better way of extracting the oils. A rep for Horizon didnt return my call seeking comment.
Petition! Start by signing the Cornucopias own petitions and go from there.
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