This month I tackle a topic dear to health conscious vegans — the use of organic soy milk for babies, instead of GMO commercial formula. Here’s the question that prompted this blog:
Dear Dr. Daniel: We’re vegan. I can’t breast feed and we put our baby daughter on soy formula soon after birth. We became concerned about all the chemicals in commercial baby formulas so switched to organic soy milk instead. Our baby is now four months old and does not seem to be growing much. Do we need to add anything? Please give us options that are vegan. — Janine
Dear Janine: Vegan parents who cannot breast feed often choose organic soy milk, believing it to be less toxic than commercially available infant formulas. By choosing organic, they also avoid GMOs.
While I know your intentions are good, soy milk is seriously deficient as a baby formula. As the FDA wrote in a 1990 warning, soy milk is “grossly lacking in the nutrients needed for infants.” The agency then advised manufacturers to put warning labels on soy milks so they would not be used as formula substitutes. Yet most makers of soy milk put those warnings on the package in very tiny print, if at all. The warnings are in little red type on the brand you’ve chosen, but so hard to see I would not be surprised if you never saw it.
The FDA took action back in 1990 after a two-month old girl in California was hospitalized with severe malnutrition. Her parents had fed her EdenSoy brand soy milk instead of infant formula. Because of this and a similar incident in Arkansas involving the SoyMoo brand of soy milk, the FDA issued a warning on June 13, 1990. Since then, most brands of soy milk — but not EdenSoy — include warning labels in tiny print on their packages.
The FDA told manufacturers to put warning labels on packages of soy milk for a very good reason. Soy milk can put an infant’s life in jeopardy. The myth that soy is a health food has led many parents — particularly vegans like you who use no animal products — to believe that soy milk is a complete and nourishing food not only for adults but for babies and children. It is not, and severe vitamin, mineral, fatty acid and amino acid deficiencies will occur. That’s why supplements such as the amino acid methionine are required by law to be added to soy infant formula.
Sadly, there have also been deaths as well as hospitalizations of vegan babies on soy milk. In May 2007, vegan parents in Atlanta were found guilty of the death of their six month old baby. To supplement the mother’s inadequate supply of breast milk the parents had fed their son soy milk and apple juice. The baby was only 3 1/2 pounds when he died of starvation in April 2004. Previously a New York couple were convicted of murder and a Florida couple of manslaughter.
Soy formula can easily lead to overt malnutrition if the product is improperly formulated or manufactured. The reason is simple: With cow’s milk, the basic components (proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals) are similar to those in human milk and have evolved to perform similar functions such as the building of mammalian brain, bone, muscle and other tissues, and the provision of metabolic energy. There are differences, of course between human milk and cow’s milk, but if formulators of dairy based formulas overlook them in ignorance, the likelihood is strong they will be at least partly compensated for by similar factors from the cow’s milk.
In contrast, soybeans and other plant species did not evolve for for the benefit of human infants. Accordingly, turning soy milk into formula requires massive supplementation, without which serious malnutrition will occur. The most famous case occurred in Fall 2003 when soy formula caused the deaths of three babies and brain damage to at least four other babies in Israel. The infants were using Remedia brand formula that was seriously deficient in vitamin B1 because its manufacturer had failed to add it. Soy milk does not contain added B1 or other of the essential supplements needed to nourish growing babies.
The deaths of the three Israeli infants from the improperly manufactured soy formula in 2003 led the Israeli Health Ministry to form a 13-member committee of pediatricians, oncologists, toxicologists and other health experts to investigate soy formula and soy foods. The committee not only confirmed serious risks from improperly manufactured soy formula such as the Remedia product but from all soy formulas. In July 2005, the Ministry issued a health advisory, in which it warned that babies should not receive soy formula (except as a last resort) and that children up to age 18 should not eat soy foods or drink soy milk more than once per day to a maximum of three times per week. The Ministry was concerned about many health issues, including adverse effects on fertility and increased cancer risk.
The Israeli warning — as well as subsequent warnings from the French Food Agency, German Institute of Risk Assessment and British Dietetic Association — is why I’m not going to suggest you switch your baby from organic soy milk to one of the organic soy formulas that is now available in the marketplace.
My strong advice is to switch to a homemade formula using one of the recipes for infant formula in Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. These recipes are also available for free in the Children’s Health section of this website.
But you are vegan, you say? You will not even consider an infant formula based on raw cow or goat’s milk? You find the very thought of preparing the meat based formula revolting? You say your baby is not a little calf? Well, your baby’s a whole lot more like a little calf than a soybean.
Organic soy formula is now available at health food stores. Risky as it is, it’s safer than soy milk. You can also find vegan formulas online based on carrot juice, green juices, almond milk and other vegan products. These will serve your vegan ideology well, but will ill serve your daughter, putting her at risk for severe malnutrition and life-long health challenges.
Mother Nature designed breast milk for babies. Like it or not, that’s an animal product.