Questions About Soy Formula

Several weeks ago Mark offered the piece Scrutinizing Soy that mentioned he was unequivocally against soy formula. At the time he suggested the topic was a whole post in itself. Of course, we couldn’t just leave the topic hanging, now could we?

Let’s first get this point on the table: we support the opinion of the American Pediatric Association, the World Health Organization and every other major medical organization in saying that breast milk is definitively the best food for infants. Hands down. Absolutely, positively. (Regardless of what we thought of the pro-breastfeeding ad campaign a couple of years ago featuring pregnant women on a mechanical bull…)

That said, if and when parents choose or must offer formula as a supplement or full-time food source, the research suggests that traditional cow’s milk-based formula is a safer option than soy formula.

For a variety of reasons, many formula-feeding parents see soy as the preferred option. Many choose soy because they assume it would be less allergenic or will curb reflux issues or fussiness in colicky babies. Some base their choice on concerns about hormones and antibiotics fed to cattle. Others feel that, all other things being apparently equal, that soy projects more of a “natural” character that might be in keeping with their own dietary priorities.

But medical advice regarding formula has been going through an overhaul in the last few years, particularly as hypoallergenic formulas have become more common. For a very small number of formula-fed infants who are genuinely allergic to cow’s milk and for whom even hypoallergenic formulas don’t work, soy formula is (undoubtedly) the next step. The catch: a large percentage of infants who have allergic reactions to cow’s milk formula also exhibit allergic response to soy. For children who can tolerate traditional or hypoallergenic cow’s milk formula, soy is not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP’s Committee on Nutrition also recommends that soy formula not be used for preterm or small-for-date babies.

So why all the concern? And are current “recommendations” against soy formula strong enough? We did some digging.

Much of the concern regarding soy formula (and soy in general) has revolved around the issue of soy’s estrogenic effects. Research has linked soy formula consumption with “more prevalent breast tissue” in the second year of life. The study did not follow the female infants through early childhood, but there’s a concern that soy consumption might be a contributing factor in the increasingly early onset of puberty in American girls. Another well known study (often referred to as the Strom study) did assess effects later in the children’s teenage years. The research found that soy formula consumption was associated with longer duration of menstrual bleeding and more painful menstrual periods during teenage years.

And there is continuing concern about very high levels of aluminum in soy formula based on a 1998 study. Prominent pediatricians in the U.S. have voiced ongoing concern over these levels, and this apprehension carries over into other countries. In Australia, the Royal College of Australian Physicians put out a very strong warning against soy formula in 2006, citing the aluminum levels as well as other health concerns.

There are also questions regarding soy as a nutritional equivalent to traditional cow’s milk formula, particularly with regard to the absorption of minerals, the importance of lactose in colonizing intestines with good bacteria, and the essential intake of the complete family of amino acids.

Finally, researchers and the medical community are looking at the impact of soy formula’s extremely high levels of manganese, a nutrient that is critical but neurologically harmful at high doses. Studies with rats showed significant cognitive impact in response to high manganese intake that many see as a suggestive link between ADD and soy formula consumption. Soy formula, the researchers noted, has 80 times the amount of manganese as human breast milk.

There is currently little evidence to support soy formula’s connection with serious or severe effects like reproductive impairment, immune system weakening, thyroid damage, neurological damage, and female reproductive disease in later years. Yet concerns over these serious effects remain and are particularly fueled by the formula industry’s funding or partial funding for much of the research, including the Strom study.

Long-term studies that can follow a population through adolescence and beyond are assuredly difficult and expensive to undertake especially when they seek to measure effects on several areas of biological functioning that may not be clear for decades.

However, what we do know about soy formula is, frankly, already enough to give us pause. We, admittedly, have our reservations about soy in general. But, here particularly, the case seems pretty clear to us. If it’s absolutely the last resort, well, then it’s the last resort. For those parents who don’t have to make that choice, why go that route when hypoallergenic and even organic formulas are now available?

And, it’s worth saying again (yeah, yeah, yeah) that a human mother’s milk is the unquestionable ideal, the evolutionarily formulated, naturally intended, perfect food for human babies. A soybean’s “milk” is, well, not for seedlings.

Got comments? (We couldn’t resist.) Send them our way!

Alessandro Perilli, maury.m, mc559, all in green Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Sounding the Alarm on Children and Food Allergies

Pregnancy Diet Tips for the Inquiring Mind

My Escape from Vegan Island

That’s Fit: Tempeh vs. Tofu – A Soy Slamdown

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