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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37 thoughts on “Questions About Soy Formula”

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  1. Our daughter (like myself) was allergic to milk at birth. So soy was our only option at the time and luckily she didn’t have an allergic reaction to that. Today she is a happy healthy (nearly) 6 year old with seasonal allergies and no outstanding milk issues. I credit large amounts of yogurt supplementing her diet from about 1.5 to 3 at which time she came off soy milk and can now consume regular dairy as long at its not gross amounts (more than 3 glasses of milk wont make her tummy happy).

    As for ADD or anything of that sort, while my kid is very energetic, she is well balanced academically and currently in kindergarten has tested reading comprehension of 3.8grade level which is in the 94th percentile nationally (using a 1st grade test since there wasn’t one for kindergarten). So ADD isn’t an issue either, maybe boredom from having to slow down for her classmates but …..

    1. @Richard: Not everyonw who smokes gets cancer, but that doesn’t mean smoking isn’t unhealthy. Just b/c your kid is okay today doesn’t mean soy formula is healthy for everyone.

  2. I have fallen victim to soy before. I don’t think soy is some evil thing or anything, but I know now that it isn’t the best food out there for you and yet “SOY” has been marketed as “natural” and “healthy” so often that it just seems better. How many ideas like this are floating through the minds of a countless number of people that are there not due to critical thinking, reading the latest research or even listening to the evening news, but instead because some corporation with certain interests has marketed the hell out of a point they want to make.

    The whole “fat scare” is the first thing that comes to mind. Someone thought they had a good idea – “fat makes people fat” – food companies ran with it and then, despite new findings/research, the food companies don’t just start adding fat back to their products to replace the HFCS and other junk they had to replace the fat with. No. They sell a bunch of the stuff. They have a vested interest in perpetuating the low-fat myth, so the keep selling low-fat food items, keep pumping out commercials for this product. And the public at large continues to think fat is the culprit.

    I do have high hopes though. The whole low-carb fad that swept the nation was a good start. Hopefully it isn’t just a fad.

    Thanks for all that you do, Mark!

  3. Gotta love the picture of the “nursing room” with the baby bottle. @@ And we wonder why so many women have trouble breastfeeding and stop so early, or don’t even try.

    My first child was mostly formula fed. Her dad was very anti-breastfeeding and I was young and got HORRIBLE advice at the hospital. (Yes, I still feel guilty about it, 12+ years later)

    She was a spitter. Didn’t matter what we did, she spat up A LOT. So we were advised to try soy formula. I don’t know that it helped, but I didn’t want to switch any more, so we stuck with it. I couldn’t tell you now how much of her first year she was on soy, but it was a lot.

    Although she hasn’t shown any problems yet, knowing what I know now I worry. A cousin, who also was on soy formula as a baby, has had pretty severe menstrual and reproductive problems all her life. I’m hoping she doesn’t have any problems.

    My sons were/are both breastfed until at least age 2 (the first until 2 1/2 and the second is still nursing and will be 2 in April), so we’re good there – no formula, really, for either of them. They do get soy milk, but not so much that I’m worried – a cup a day usually. We do both cow and soy milk. I don’t think soy is evil, but I don’t think it’s a superfood either. But the same goes for cow’s milk – totally not necessary, but dairy can be part of a healthy diet.

  4. Slightly off topic here, but only slightly – when the heck did soy become a health food anyway?

    When I was a kid in the 70s, I remember that you could buy boxes of frozen pre-made hamburger patties supplemented with soy protein in the grocery store. Only poor people bought them – they were considered inferior food, adulterated somehow. And when the school lunch programs started using them to cut costs, all the parents were up in arms.

    Now (these are Boston area prices, which will look high to those of you in the Midwest), people pay $4 for a half gallon of soy milk and $2.50 for cow’s milk. A 10-oz box of veggie burgers (largely soy) costs $3.50 to $4, but a whole pound of hamburger costs the same price.

    When did inferior food acquire such cachet?

  5. I hear the whole argument and know that BREAST is best. But some must stop or cant start for whatever reasons they have (legit or not!). Now my grandbaby (4months now) started life as a breastfed baby but his Mom HAD to stop and was reluctant to give formula as both she and my son and many of both their siblings were horribly allergic to dairy. She chose, based upon advice from her conventional pediatrician, to switch to soy! Fastforward a bit and now the baby is quite congested and they are being told to change his formula again as he might have a soy allergy, which is common in those w/ dairy allergies!!
    He now is being transitioned to Nutramigen,
    which is being marketed as a non allegenic formula for infants!!
    What choices does someone have when it seems there are no other choices?
    I did hear about a “natural formula” from Switzerland that is only available by RX!

  6. Well, it’s no suprise to me that there are not many studies done on the endocrine system and soy. There simply isn’t much interest in studying the endocrine system, period, let alone the soy connection. There are many things that disrupt the endocrine system and soy may or may not be a big factor, but I choose not to eat it and would never make it a regular part of my kids diet.

  7. Serena,

    The hypoallergenic formula is the best choice for your grandchild, given the circumstances. The medical community is united on that front. I would talk to the doctor about adding a probiotic powder supplement twice daily to assist with building good intestinal flora and minimizing the added risk of intestinal illnesses that formula fed babies have.

    I would also avoid feeding any solids until 6+ months and skip the whole “cereal” stage. Pureed fruits and veggies as well as finely ground meats are better choices. (My daughter’s first food was avocado, and she loved it. We thinned it with water in the food processor.)

    The pediatrician likely suggested waiting at least a year to introduce dairy, given the baby’s initial reaction to traditional formula. As one of the other responders said, yogurt (especially with minimal sugar) is a great first dairy. Cottage cheese would be a secondary choice.

    Best to you and your granddaughter!

  8. I was a soy-formula baby. Fast forward 16 years to puberty (yeah, I was a later bloomer. Ahem.) and my periods hit hard & heavy. So much so that every month I was literally out of school for a couple of days dealing with it. (TMI? Tough) The specialist that I finally saw about it told me and my mother that he sees this problem a lot… in girls who were fed soy formula as babies. He didn’t have any proof at the time but since then several studies (like the one you cited) have also found that same link. Fortunately I was able to breastfeed all my kids so instead of the milk vs. soy conundrum I got other issues like “Does chocolate make my baby gassy?” Please, noooooo….

    Thanks for making people aware of this. My mother would’ve thanked you 28 years ago;)

  9. I breastfed all my kids, even my food allergic guy. He has allergies to dairy, soy, wheat, egg, and malt (which seems to encompass barley). He also does not tolerate spelt. Anyway, he had reflux and projectile vomit as a newborn and that progressed to eczema and bloody stools. The drs were of little help and it was suggested that I might try formula. Not an option for me, instead I went totally dairy free based on information I found on line. I switched all *my* dairy to soy and I truly believe that this sensitized him to soy. But once I was off dairy and soy the reflux/projectile vomiting stopped and the bloody stools. Eczema was still an issue off and on. It was only w/in the last year that we found out about the rest of the allergies (he’s IgG reactive, not IgE so they didnt show up on the first couple rounds of tests). He’s now eczema free as long as we are careful with his diet. My point is that you CAN breastfeed an allergic child by changing your own diet (an allergy to breastmilk itself is extremely rare, allergens to proteins in your breastmilk is more likely and fixable). We nursed for 2.5 years almost. I have so many people ask why I didn’t just put him on formula. He was so sensitive to dairy in MY diet I imagine he would have reacted to even the so-called “hypoallergenic” formulas and would have required Neocate which may or may not have been covered by insurance. This doesn’t have anything to do with soy formula really. Hope it’s not too far from the topic!

  10. My son also had multiple food allergies, cow milk among them. I nursed him for more than one and a half year, although towards the end, used Nutramigen, too (pretty expensive stuff). When he started solids, we also had to make sure it was milk free (the selection wasn’t that big), and had good experience with Nestle Sinlac. My son is now five, and although he has outgrown his milk allergies, he now drinks calcium-fortified rice milk. We’ve been staying away from soy products for exactly the same reasons you’ve cited.

  11. Yeah and aspartame causes cancer, the best way to lose weight is high carb/low fat, high protein/no carb, and do 8 gazzilion hours at 65% on the treadmill, blah blah yadda yadda.

    My daughter was born in 1989. She couldn’t keep milk down, so, soy it was. She still isn’t a milk drinker, unless it’s loaded with chocolate syrup.

    She experienced none of the issues mentioned and is better than good.

    The study didn’t follow girls long enough to determine the effects of soy on early onset puberty. This doesn’t surprise me as probably impossible to filter out the effects of all the hormones pumped into our food supply – which leads me to wonder who it was that funded the study?

    1. Could it have been the billion dollar soy industry that makes generous research grants to the same institutions making the studies.

  12. @Nancy S:

    You mention your little guy’s sensitivity to wheat, malt and spelt. If you haven’t already, have him tested for Celiac disease (it’s a simple blood test). Celiacs lack the enzyme required to digest the gluten protein in wheat (including spelt), rye, and barley. It’s very common (around 1% of the population have it), but underdiagnosed (only 1 in 10 are ever diagnosed).

  13. I have had 3 children, all fed soy formula. All 3 remain uniquely different in mostly every way. Two are boys, with completely different personalities, and I would not attempt to point an accusing finger at a soy-formula manufacturer during a bout of hyperactivity. (My daughter is 7 months old and is perfectly happy and beautiful.) This is because studies show that ADD is physically caused by neurotransmitters that are not properly functioning in the brain. I would be more likely to blame the bluetooth one may wear all day, or radio waves, or even your common microwave for neurotransmission problems than soy formula. I also heard that preemie babies are more apt to be autistic on the radio this week, and last year, they were blaming that on vaccinations, or mercury, or both. Now, there are parents who refuse life saving vaccinations because of unrealistic test studies that eventually prove fallible.
    I can say one thing… it seems what proves untrue today is quickly replaced with another “blame” tomorrow. Let’s spare future babies the torture of living with a milk allergy while mommy and daddy read too many studies and baby suffers miserably. Do what you think is best as a parent! The evil soy of today may be the cancer cure of tomorrow… or something like that… who knows?

  14. Dianna, I see your point about the uncertainty of science, but I’m not sure why you think radiation from cell phones or microwaves could influence neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals, not waves, so it’s not like there could be interference from other kinds of waves. It seems much more plausible to me that foods, which are also made of chemicals, could interfere with neurotransmitters than that waves could.

  15. two children, now teenagers, both soy formula fed. Both completed puberty. Both very short in comparison to parents. Anyone else with similar experience?

  16. I fed my son soy formula. My son is now 13 years old and suffers with eczema and asthma. He was 9 lbs. at birth and a very good eater. He had no skin or health problems, he was perfect and beautiful. I breastfed for 2 months then put him on regular formula. He loved the taste but would stop eating and cry and act like his tummy hurt. He wasn’t getting enough to eat so I called the doctor, they said to put him on Soy formula. What a big mistake! Immediately after that he broke out with eczema on his face, red and oozing. It looked awful. We switched to hypoallergenic formula, went from one expensive formula to another, he hated the taste of most of them. The eczema would slow down but was still there and would flare up from time to time. I know it was because of the soy. He later developed asthma and doctors told me it went hand-in-hand. How I wish I had done more research to find out how he could tolerate the regular formula or some other alternative. He has suffered with the eczema all these years, it’s really bad right now. I’ve never had him tested to see what he’s allergic to. I have been reading package lables and it’s amazing how many products have soybean oil or soy flour in them. My dad said MSG is made from soy beans and he is highly allergic to MSG. All margarines are made from soybean oil. If my son is allegic to soybeans, we’ll never get away from them. Get out your encyclopedia and read about them, they are in almost everything even all the animals we eat are fed them. I would welcome advise on how we can overcome this problem my son has. Do you think it’s the soybeans or something else in the formula causing the eczema?

  17. I have met a bunch of people – kids and older adults – who were fed soy formula as babies and they have not experienced any of these issues. I keep reading abotu the worry of soy but have never met anyone who had any problem with it. Keeping my fingers crossed b/c that’s what I HAVE to feed my son, but these problems being attributed to soy have not been studied enough and there is no “proof”.

  18. I just came across this, and even though it’s late, I have to respond: What a joke! Commercially raised livestock are routinely given xenoestrogens to fatten them up and cause them to retain water. In the 1970s and 1980s there was an epidemic in Puerto Rico of early puberty in girls as young as a year old and even young boys who developed breasts caused by meat and dairy products containing high levels of estrogen. In the United States, the use of estrogen compounds is now slightly better regulated, but it is still very much used and abused.
    Dairy consumption in children has been positively linked to juvenile diabetes, chronic upper respiratory infections, asthma, autism, and chronic intestinal distress.

    In adults, dairy consumption is linked to heart disease, osteoporosis (yes, you read that right: Osteoporosis is not a disease caused by calcium deficiency, but rather calcium depletion), obesity, adult-onset diabetes, and cancer of the breast and prostate.

    The dairy industry has done a fabulous job convincing us (and doctors) that without their products we will not be healthy, when just the opposite is true. Without dairy products in our diets, we stand to be a great deal healthier, as plant-based foods that contain all of the nutrients our bodies need do not also contain the excessive animal protein, saturated fat, cholesterol, lactose, casein, and growth hormones found in dairy.

    I sincerely hope that this question was about soy forumula, vs. cow’s milk formula, and there is no doubt that soy formula is the next best alternative to breast milk for infants.

    Unless of course, you are raising a baby cow. Then of course, cow’s milk is the perfect food.

  19. How many thousands of years did humans exist without any option of formula? But we run to it now when it gets uncomfortable to breast feed. I wonder what the moms did a couple hundred years ago…just stop feeding their kids and call it a day? Geez…(wo)man up and just do your job as a mom and feed your kids, and stop trusting it to some chemical company…

    1. As your name is Andrew I will hazard a guess that you do not possess a set of milk-producing mammary glands and therefore you are ill-equipped to pass judgement on any woman who is unable or chooses not to breastfeed.
      I attempted to breastfeed for a month and after two particularly nasty infections which left me bed bound (caused by my babies poor latch from a tongue tie) I gave up and pumped milk for him instead.
      To answer your question, yes women would have given up or their supply would have dried up and their baby would and very commonly DID die.
      Luckily we live in an age where we have pumps and alternative formulas to give babies so that they don’t have to die.
      My baby was delivered my c section as his head was stuck in my pelvis- would you suggest I pass on the medical intervention and continue to push until we both died? I like to think some of us have evolved since those days but clearly you are still a Neanderthal.
      And tell me, when you go to the dentist do you ‘man up’ and have root canals without the anesthetic? I doubt it.
      You will never have any idea of the pain, suffering, distress and turmoil women face when attempting to breastfeed and the intense guilt and shame they feel when they cannot or choose not to- only exacerbated by callous idiots like you. How dare you. You should be ashamed.

  20. andrew – what could you possibly know about breast feeding or about the problems that some women have in trying to do it? some people are NOT ABLE to breast feed. a couple hundred year ago they had a nursing maid (or another mother who was able to nurse) breast feed the child for them. Before you criticize maybe you should condider the fact that some women are not able to produce milk. Geez…

  21. Dear Andrew, considering that you are a man, you don`t know what a woman faces throughout pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding. You should leave a sharp comment like this whenever you go trough the same things as mothers…by the time you might change your mind. There are many issues can make breastfeeding impossible or an everyday battle causing a miserable time for both moms and babies. See my example: I had inverted nipples and had to use nipple shields or pump before trying to breastfeed, my son on the other hand was unable to latch on or suck properly from the day he was born and no specialist could help him to improve. Should I beat myself up because of my genes or him because of his `deficiency` on the field of proper sucking? We have severe milk-allergy history in the family- I`m too, my husband had as a child. I had to use soy-formula and still use it as it was the only one he does good on, he doesn`t have any tummy issues, spit-up problems, eczema whatsoever and is a happy guy. I`m a health care professional and I haven`t seen enough studies on the possible effects of soy formulas on infants and further ages. Many studies were carried out years ago, from that time the formulas developed a lot. I see more harmth in putting unnecessary worry in parents minds.

  22. Hi I would love an Organic Natural baby Formula.

    I would like to know of a formula that contains NO SOY, NO CORN, NO PALM OIL and NO RAPESEED(CANOLA)as these products are usually Genetically engineered and are carcinogenic to humans. Dose a such formula exist?

    Please email me if you can help

    [email protected]

  23. I have 5 children, all of whom I breastfed for as long as possible, but my milk supply ALWAYS dried up somewhere between 3-6 months. My 4th child, a boy, is the only one who had problems with regular formula so he was put on soy formula. He started it at about 6 months of age. I find it interesting that he is my ONLY child who has ADD issues. Hmmmm… Sure wish I’d have known what I know now about nutrition when I was raising my kids. It is really hard to change their eating habits when they’re all grown up. 🙁

  24. Well… while my Mother nursed me… she then found I “had a reaction (a rash?)” to regular formula when she gave it to me at age 6 months. While, I have always been VERY healthy, 6 months postpartum with my own son, I developed hypothyroidism. Great. No one else in my family has it, there is no other reason for me to have it other than that!

  25. Hi everyone, my 5 YO daughter is facing constipation issue right now. She never poo for few days already and complaint to me that his stomach was quite painful sometimes. So, I need suggestion on those proper remedies that able to prevent constipation issue.

  26. Trying giving them more water and eat more prunes or fibre, this will help them to prevent constipation! hope it will help ur child.

  27. My DS went to hospital last month bcos my MIL was so smart to let him try those traditional herbs! So better don’t simply try try all and seek proper medical advise first la..

  28. My son no more constipation problem, after taking Mamil. Also, no sugar and high DHA, this helps the child away from diabetes and hyperactive! But, the pre-biotic in Mamil help to solve constipation problem! Try to take it for a week.

  29. Hey, I would suggest you to use “Friso” baby formula as my daughter is drinking it now and my daughter doesn’t face constipation. As what I know, “Friso” is less heaty than Mamil but is sweeter than Mamil.

  30. Previously when my daughter faced constipation, my friend who work as a doctor recommended me to try Mamil. Once I switched to Mamil, my daughter doesn’t complain and suffer with constipation.