Toddler formula is promoted as the best way to nourish young children. However, their sugar content and the link between dairy and autism question these claims. 

As more parents become aware of the benefits of breast milk for babies, the formula industry has changed course. The next big thing is toddler formula, marketed as a way to prevent nutritional deficiencies while transitioning to “grownup” foods. But not everything is as it appears. Formulas marketed for toddlers are not essential foods, and may contribute to obesity, gastrointestinal inflammation, and autism. Many parents are also concerned about the effects of cow milk on their children. What is really in these toddler formulas, and how do “trendy” alternatives such as goat milk and camel milk stack up? 

Toddler Formula: Just Another Sugary Drink?

Toddler formulas are mainly made of powdered milk, vegetable oil, and corn syrup. This means they have less protein, more sugar, and higher sodium content than cow’s milk. For example, Enfagrow Toddler Next Step contains non-fat milk powder, corn syrup solids, vegetable oils, and sugars. Additionally, it contains added vitamins and minerals. Gerber Good Start Grow isn’t too different, with non-fat dry milk, lactose, vegetable oils, and fortified vitamins and minerals.

Researchers estimate that three-quarters of one-year-olds consume sugary foods or beverages. However, the recommended intake of sugar-sweetened beverages for toddlers is zero. The high consumption of sugary drinks is a likely contributor to the overweight and obesity epidemics. Around eight percent of children under two are overweight, and 14 percent of two to five-year-olds are already obese. The sugar content of toddler formula may also “train” their palates to accept and expect sugary foods. This could be partly why children who are obese by the age of five have a much higher risk of obesity as teenagers.

Marketing Hype

Formula companies claim that their products are helpful because they are fortified with essential nutrients. “Enfagrow Toddler nourishes healthy brain growth because it has DHA,” states a voiceover in one commercial. Their quote implies that children can’t get DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) from other food sources. However, there is no evidence that young children aren’t getting enough already. The Enfamil website even cherry-picks foods to compare DHA levels, pitting cow milk, mini pizzas and chicken nuggets against their toddler formula. They can get away with it too. There are currently no FDA regulations for toddler formula regarding claims, nutrition labels, ingredients, or product identity.

None of this stops companies from hyping these products. From 2006 to 2015, sales of toddler formula rose from $39 million to $92 million. Advertising expenses rose from under $5 million to over $20 million while less was spent on infant formula. The brands benefiting the most had WIC contracts for infant formula, the food program for low-income mothers and children. These contracts could promote brand loyalty through the products sold for babies. In 2018, Nestle was accused of violating advertising codes by claiming its infant formulas were similar to breastmilk. They even contradicted themselves, removing sucrose and flavorings “for baby’s good health” in some countries while including them in others. 

What Should Toddlers Eat?

Neither the World Health Organization nor American Academy of Pediatrics recommends toddler formula over whole foods. A panel of experts drew the same conclusion, as there is no evidence of it as having unique nutritional value. Instead, it’s recommended that children follow their families’ diets by the age of two, and drink water and plain milk. Any nutrient deficiency should preferably be corrected with whole foods. 

The Weston Price Foundation agrees, recommending a diet high in healthy fats that spans all food groups but forbids processed and refined foods. Their sample meal plan includes oatmeal with blueberries, egg yolk, and cod liver oil; grass-fed meatloaf and cream of vegetable soup. Cod liver oil contains almost 500mg of DHA per teaspoon, sticking a pin in the claim that toddlers need highly processed formula. 

Cow Milk Is Not (Always) Best

The powdered milk used in toddler formula is cow milk unless labeled otherwise. Around 30 percent of the proteins in cow milk are beta-caseins, which can appear as A1 or A2. The A1 variant is broken down into active opioid-like peptides during digestion. These cause constipation by slowing transit time; increase intestinal inflammation; and promote production of mucin. Mucin is a protective barrier that can affect the microbiome in excessive amounts. To make things worse, milk-derived opioids increase inflammation and opioid build-up in the brain by increasing gut permeability (leaky gut).

Young children do not necessarily need to avoid all dairy, as A1 casein is only found in milk from European cattle. Pure-bred Asian and African cows; goats, sheep and buffalo produce the A2 variant. Reducing milk intake or switching to A2 products is relieves digestive motility issues such as constipation. In addition, consuming A2 milk increases the production of glutathione, the “master” antioxidant. This requires cysteine, found in whey protein, but the opioids derived from A1 casein impair glutathione synthesis.

Some clinical trials suggest a link between dairy and autism through differences in dietary opioid metabolism. When a gluten-free, casein-free diet was tested on 72 children with autism or ADHD, their communication, social skills and focus improved. Elimination of both proteins removes dietary opioids and relieves digestive inflammation. An earlier study showed that autistic children commonly have antibodies against the butyrophilin (BTN) protein in milk. This cross-reacts with proteins in the nervous system, meaning a response against BTN could “teach” the immune system to attack them. Dairy and autism could also be linked by the low activity of DPPIV, an enzyme that inactivates opioid-like proteins in milk. A deficiency or low functioning of this enzyme is associated with immune system imbalance. 

Goat Milk And Camel Milk As Alternatives

Camel milk and goat milk may be even better alternatives. Goat milk is higher in iodine, magnesium, manganese, and potassium, but a little lower in protein, calcium, and zinc. It is naturally higher in DHA too. If your child benefits from switching to goat from cow milk, you can compensate with other foods to get enough of the nutrients it is low in. Goat milk is also more easily digested because it has less casein, smaller fat globules, and more medium-chain fatty acids. These factors help it to be less allergenic. 

In the case of camel milk, the relationship between dairy and autism is more promising. A trial on 60 autistic children compared raw and boiled camel milk to a placebo. In only two weeks positive results occurred. Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) scores fell from 37.63 to 34.54 in the raw group, and from 36.82 to 33.8 among children drinking boiled milk. CARS scores did not change in the placebo group. A CARS score of 30-37 indicates mild to moderate autism, while a score of 38-60 points to severe autism. Their blood levels of glutathione also significantly rose. 

Camel milk does not contain beta-casein and has shown anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral and antioxidant properties. Researchers believe that oxidative stress may be one of the underlying causes of autism, alongside other neurological disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. As for its nutritional value, camel milk is higher in calcium, magnesium, zinc, and vitamins A, B2, E, and C than cow milk. 

Overall, toddler formula gets a “thumbs down,” and whole, traditional foods are the best way to nourish our children. 

Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.

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