Is European Baby Formula Better than U.S. Formula?

Discussions about European formulas often center around the idea that they are organic and have “clean ingredients.” 

What does this really mean? What makes European formulas preferable to American formula options?

The European Commission is the place to start for answers to these questions.

What is the European Commission?

The European Commission, among other things, is the certifying body that sets requirements for nutritional composition, food safety, and labeling for infant formula and other “first foods” across Europe. While there are both slight and major differences between the two agencies, the European Commission is most similar to the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, that governs infant formula production in the United States. Both agencies are responsible for providing guidance and issuing approvals before an infant formula can be sold in their respective country.

What is Required in an Infant Formula?

Like the FDA, the European Commission has both maximum and minimum quantity requirements for energy (i.e. calories), macronutrients, and micronutrients in infant formulas. Both agencies require a similar composition of fat, protein, and carbohydrates as well as the inclusion of certain important micronutrients, such as Vitamin B, Folic Acid, Choline, and Calcium. Both agencies require that formulas closely mimic the composition of breast milk in order to provide a safe and healthy option that will promote infant growth.

What Does the European Commission Do Differently?

While both agencies have requirements for what’s included in a formula, the European Commission has stricter guidelines about what sources can be used to meet these requirements. They also regulate additional inclusions, exclusions, allowances, formula stages, and certifications.

  • Nutrient Sources: All infant formulas include carbohydrates for energy and these carbohydrates are typically pulled from sugars and starches. The European Commission has a small list of allowable sources for carbohydrates which include lactose, maltose, glucose, maltodextrins, glucose syrup, pre-cooked starch, and gelatinized starch. Notably missing from this list is corn syrup and corn syrup solids, which are often the primary source of carbohydrates in US baby formulas. Additionally, the European Commission requires that at least 30% of carbohydrates in infant formula come from lactose, as this is the primary carbohydrate source in breast milk. The US does not have this same requirement, and some US formulas contain little or no lactose at all. 

  • Required Exclusions: Additionally, the Commission has requirements about what sources cannot be used, or can only be used conditionally, in infant formulas. For example, sucrose can only be used as a carbohydrate in formulas with hydrolyzed proteins (and can make up no more than 20% of the total carbohydrate), all carbohydrates sources must be gluten-free, and fat cannot be derived from sesame seed or cottonseed oil. Additionally, European formulas must be free from fillers such as gums (including locust and guar gum) and soluble fibers like pectin and fructan.  

  • Additional Inclusions: The European Commission’s recommendation for what is included in infant formula has continually evolved as more is discovered about the properties of breast milk. For example, the Commission required that by 2020, all infant formulas (those that are manufactured for babies through 12 months) contain an essential fatty acid called DHA that is known to promote brain health. Additionally, the Commission requires that L-Carnitine is added to infant formulas that contain hydrolyzed proteins, as this helps energy metabolism. Lastly, many European formulas routinely include amino acids (like tyrosine and tryptophan) and probiotics (such as Lactobacillus, which is also found in breast milk!) that aren’t present in US varieties.
  • Additional allowances: A significant difference between European and US formulas is that European manufacturers are permitted to use goat milk as the base for their formulas. Goat milk formulas are a great alternative for babies who struggle to digest the larger proteins found in cow milk formula and are known to be gentler on little tummies.

  • Stages: The European Commission recognizes that the nutritional make-up of breast milk changes over time to meet the needs of growing infants. As such, infant formulas are “staged” in Europe to more closely resemble what’s found in breast milk over time. European brands offer 3 stages: stage 1 suitable for birth onwards, stage 2 for infants who are at least 6 months of age, and stage 3 can either be for 10 months+ (for the German region) or 12 months+ (for the British/UK and Netherlands/Dutch region).

  • Certifications: Several European formulas are made with organic ingredients, and nearly all are certified organic. The only formulas that we carry that are not certified organic are those that use protein hydrolysates, such as HiPP Comfort and HiPP HA, as protein hydrolysates are not available in organic form, and HiPP Anti-Reflux, which uses locust bean gum. All formulas approved by the European Commission must be produced from animal milk that contains no hormones, no detectable levels of pesticide residues, and no GMOs. Additionally, several European infant formulas meet even stricter requirements, with Holle formulas (except Holle Goat) produced from Demeter-certified farms, while Lebenswert formulas are Bioland-certified. While Kendamil does not have any official certification besides the organic certification, they source all their ingredients from local suppliers which minimizes carbon footprint. They avoid using fish oil to protect the ocean's ecosystem and their factory runs on 100% renewable energy. 

  • Whole milk recipes: European formulas offer formula options that use whole milk as the base- either whole cows’ milk or whole goats’ milk. All American formulas use skimmed milk as the “base” because it is much easier to mimic the fatty acid profile of breast milk with the addition of vegetable oils in a particular proportion when a skimmed milk “base” is used. Using whole milk, such as in formulas like Kendamil, Holle PRE, and Holle Goat, enables your infant to get some fat from a natural mammalian fat source, as they would when drinking breast milk, rather than get their fat solely from vegetable oil fat. Furthermore, the use of whole milk means that some formulas will contain Milk Fat Globule Membrane (MFGM), an important component found in breast milk that is linked to improved cognitive development, and can also be found in Kendamil formula. Lastly, parent’s rave about how much better whole milk based formulas taste- so definitely a plus for those picky infants!

Why You Should Buy European Baby Formula

The reasons above speak for themselves! European formula ingredients are simply better. The nutrient composition of European formulas is closer to breast milk and they exclude some ingredients, like corn syrup and guar gum, that just isn’t helpful in a baby’s first food. 

European formulas offer a wider variety of organic, nutritious products to meet the unique needs of your baby. 

Deciding to use European formula is the easy part-- the hard part is selecting which one.

That’s where we come in! Check out our one-of-a-kind Best Organic Formula Buyer’s Guide or answer the questions in the “Choosing the Right Formula” blog post. 

Still unsure of which formula to try? 

Little Bundle’s Team of Certified Infant Nutrition Technicians are baby formula experts who have helped thousands of parents find the right formula. Send a live chat or message, it’s their top priority to help you provide the best nutrition for your little one.