Understanding Baby Formula Ingredients | How to Read a Formula Label

combo-feeding formula preparing formula Feb 07, 2024
A mom looks down at her baby while she is feeding the baby infant formula in a bottle

We’ve all heard it before…Only eat ingredients you can pronounce

Then you go searching for a baby formula and see an ingredient list the length of a short novel. That’s where some of the negative feelings around using infant formula can start. Then we go searching online and see rhetoric about infant formulas being made of poison or having fillers. Suddenly, we are feeling even worse about using formula.

I’m here to share that every ingredient in baby formula has a purpose - even if negative people on the internet don’t understand. Let’s dive into how to read a formula label so you can feel good about the ingredients in baby formula.

>>> Feeling guilt or negative feelings about needing to use formula? Click here to get my free guide to overcoming formula guilt <<<

What is Baby Formula Made From?

Have you ever seen a baby formula claim that is it the “closest to breastmilk?” Yes, baby formula is designed to replicate the nutritional composition of breastmilk, but how do we even get to that place? 

Baby formula is derived from dried cow’s milk, dried goat’s milk, or soy. From there, The primary ingredients in most baby formulas include proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Some are found naturally in cow’s milk and some are added in. These elements work together to ensure that your baby receives all the nutrients they need to support their overall health, growth, and development.

What Ingredients Are in Baby Formula?

You will find five main ingredients in your formula.

Protein: whey/casein, nonfat milk protein, whey isolate or concentrate, hydrolyzed milk protein, or soy protein isolate.

Protein helps build and repair tissue, fights infection, and provides energy.

I prefer a formula with added whey/whey protein isolate because whey is easier to digest than casein. 

 Fat: Palm olein or palm oil, soy oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, coconut oil, rapeseed oil or single-cell oil are all types of fats you might find.

Fats are essential because they provide energy, help with brain development, and help absorb nutrients.

Some families like to avoid palm oil due to ethical concerns and that it sometimes causes constipation. Others like to avoid soy oil.

Carbs: lactose, maltodextrin, corn syrup/corn syrup solids, starch, sucrose/sugar, and glucose syrup/solids.

Carbs are the main source of energy.

Did you know that most babies tolerate lactose well? Lactose intolerance usually does not occur until later in life. Some formula companies remove lactose as the main carb source and replace it with another simple-acting carb like the ones listed above.

Vitamins and minerals: the FDA regulates minimums and some maximums of 27 vitamins and minerals that are critical to your baby's growth and development.

These are mandatory for all infant formulas.

The manufacturer may have added some featured ingredients such as lactoferrin, lutein, milk fat globule membrane, prebiotics, and probiotics.

These are not mandatory. Different formulas will have different featured ingredients. Many are added after independent research is done by the formula company and are often used to mimic breast milk.

I like an added pre or probiotic for good gut health, but this can be added separately.

How to read a baby formula ingredient list

Now that we know the main ingredients in baby formula, let's go a little deeper. I separated the main ingredient types by color.

  • Protein (light blue)

  • Carbohydrate (pink/red)

  • Fat (green)

  • Vitamins, minerals, and featured ingredients (white)

First, the ingredients at the beginning of the list have higher concentrations in the formula. The first ingredient is non-fat cow's milk (also known as skim milk) that is dried.

The carbohydrate comes from lactose, which is the second largest component of this formula.

Whey protein concentrate is added as another protein source to make the cow's milk more similar to human milk. Whey protein is easier to digest than casein, which is present in higher amounts in cow's milk.

The fat sources are in green. These fats mimic the profile of the fats in breast milk.

The remaining ingredients in the list are vitamins, minerals, and added ingredients that mimic the composition of breastmilk and have been proven to promote growth and development. The concentration of vitamins and minerals is regulated by the FDA to meet the demands of a growing baby.

Do you know what ingredient is found in baby formula that is found in very low levels in breast milk?


Iron stores from mom circulate in baby's bloodstream until baby is about 4 months. After that, iron is needed in baby's diet either through solid foods, supplementation, or formula. Some pediatric providers wait until solid foods are added and then recommend focusing on iron-rich foods.

There is one other baby formula ingredient on this label that may not be in other formulas - soy lecithin. Lecithin is an emulsifier, meaning that it helps thin out fats. Most baby formulas do not have this as an ingredient, but it does serve a purpose. It isn't a "filler" like many of the negative sources 

>>> click here for a list of iron-rich foods for your baby <<<

There is one other baby formula ingredient on this label that may not be in other formulas - soy lecithin. Lecithin is an emulsifier, meaning that it helps thin out fats. Most baby formulas do not have this as an ingredient, but it does serve a purpose. It isn't a "filler" like some sources would make you believe.

Does Baby Formula Have Sugar or Corn Syrup in It?

One concern often raised by parents is the presence of sugar or corn syrup in baby formula. Each formula needs to contain a fast-acting carb that babies can easily digest. Some sensitive or gentle formulas remove lactose as the main carb source, meaning another ingredient needs to replace the fast-acting carb. This is where maltodextrin, corn syrup, glucose syrup solids or sugar come in. Standard cow milk formulas often contain lactose as the carb source. 

I’m often asked if parents should avoid formulas with alternative carb sources in them. In my opinion, they might be necessary if your baby has special digestive needs or you can choose a gentle formula with lactose as the carb source like Bobbie Gentle. 

Is Baby Formula Poison?

A misconception that occasionally circulates is the idea that baby formula is a harmful or toxic substance. In reality, baby formula undergoes stringent testing and regulation to ensure its safety and nutritional adequacy. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), closely monitors and approves infant formulas, setting strict standards to guarantee the well-being of infants.

>>> Click here to read other formula feeding myths and why they are incorrect <<<

Is Baby Formula Made of Chemicals?

The term "chemicals" can be misleading and often carries a negative connotation. In reality, everything, including the food we eat, is made up of chemicals. The important aspect is understanding the specific chemicals present in baby formula and ensuring they are safe and necessary for infant nutrition.

Baby formula is a product of scientific formulation, carefully designed to mirror the nutritional profile of breast milk. The ingredients, including proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, are sourced and processed to create a balanced and digestible formula. As with any food product, it's essential to be informed about the specific ingredients used.


I hope this helps you understand what is and what isn't in baby formula. One of the biggest steps of feeling good about formula is knowing what is inside the canister and why.

>>> click here for more tips on choosing a great formula for your family <<<

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