The Best Baby Formula
Which come closest to the "real thing"?
The good news when it comes to picking the best baby formula is that you can't really go wrong — the FDA regulates them all to ensure infants are getting the nutrition they need. That said, every baby formula is designed to mimic breast milk and we wanted to discover which ones come the closest. Full disclosure: There's no one easy answer, so to make our top picks, we consulted pediatricians and a food policy expert, dug into the ingredients of over 90 formulas, and even mixed up and tasted a few for ourselves.
At $40 for about 20 oz., it’s expensive, but this cow’s milk formula is one of only a few that uses exclusively lactose as a sweetener.
For $16 less, we like this similar formula with a 70/30 percent mix of lactose and corn maltodextrin as its sweetener.
We’re guessing your search for baby formula probably started something like this: “Yes, breast is best. But I’m not able to breastfeed — or at least not exclusively. So now what?” Rest assured you’re not alone. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, two-thirds of American infants rely on formula for some or all of their nutrition by 3 months of age, and all those parents are looking for the same thing: What’s best for baby.
Good news: The FDA regulates all baby formula. “Unlike most other foods, the government makes sure you’re getting a nutritionally adequate product” with formula, says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst for the Food Safety and Sustainability Center at Consumer Reports and contributor to its Greener Choices website. Thus, every commercially available formula has the same basic mix of protein, fats, carbs, and essential vitamins and minerals. Many formulas are also enhanced with additional fatty acids and beneficial bacteria, and the vast majority are iron-fortified, which is the strong recommendation of the medical community.
Ultimately, the formula your infant likes the most is the one that’s best for you.
This means any formula you pick is safe to feed your baby, but there are nuanced differences from formula to formula that affect taste, consistency, and ease of digestion. Ultimately, the formula your infant likes the most is the one that’s best for you.
Our Top Pick
Enfamil Enspire Powdered Baby Formula An easily digestible formula sweetened exclusively with lactose, not corn.
But if you’re looking for a great formula to get started, we recommend Enfamil Enspire. It’s a cow’s milk formula that partially hydrolyzes (meaning it partially breaks down) its protein for easier digestion, and includes the most extra goodies to mimic breast milk, including pre- and probiotics, lactoferrin, and milk fat globule membrane. Another standout: Lactose is its only sweetener, as opposed to the corn-based ingredients found in lots of baby formulas.
The downside is that it’s expensive: $40 for 20.5 oz, and that will add up fast. Our more budget-conscious pick is Gerber Good Start Gentle Powder Infant Formula, another cow’s milk formula that also contains hydrolyzed whey protein, plus lactose as a hefty 70 percent of its sweetener (the other 30 percent is corn maltodextrin). It’s a much friendlier $24 for 23 oz, and when we mixed some up and tasted it, it was no sweeter than Enfamil Enspire — just not as rich.
If you’re searching for a soy-based formula, we like Gerber Good Start Soy ($24 for 26 oz). It’s one of the only formulas we found that uses non-GMO soy, plus relies more on corn maltodextrin than sucrose for its sugar, and is therefore less sweet than many of its counterparts. And finally, for organic-only parents, we prefer newcomer Plum Organics Infant Formula ($33 for 21 oz). Plum stands out by using organic lactose as its sweetener and nothing else — glucose and corn syrup solids show up in pretty much all of its competitors, including the ever-popular brand Honest Co.’s Organic Infant Formula.
How We Found the Best Baby Formula
There is a surplus of infant formula on the market. Our initial list included 96 options ranging from routine formulations to specialty ones, from powders to liquid concentrates, plus organic options, fortified options, non-GMO — the list goes on. Overwhelming choice is the first challenge parents looking for formula face. “Formula manufacturers are competing very actively for your business,” confirms Dr. Stan Cohen, pediatric gastroenterologist, author of What to Feed Your Baby: Cost-Conscious Nutrition for Your Infant, and founding member of Nutrition4Kids.
But what all baby formula companies are trying to do is mimic breast milk; it’s the gold standard by which they are measured. “Breast milk is an infant’s natural food, a living food that has hundreds or thousands of nutrients and components, many of which scientists haven’t even identified or understand fully,” says Vallaeys. The American Academy of Pediatrics, World Health Organization, and tons of other groups agree, and research shows that breastfeeding has many health benefits for both infants and nursing moms.
Our mission was to try and find out which matched breast milk the most.
Why Powder Formula? The ingredients lists for different versions of the same formula — powder, liquid concentrate, ready-to-feed — are virtually identical. Powder is the most common and most affordable; with the others, you’re mostly paying for convenience. We recommend them if you’re going somewhere without a clean water source (say, camping) or if you’re not giving formula very often.
To home in on our top picks, we focused on powder formulas geared toward healthy, term infants. (Preemie babies, as well as those with severe allergy or absorption issues, will likely need a specialty formula; those are best selected in careful consultation with your doctor.)
Protein is the biggest variable when choosing a formula, and your main choices include cow’s milk, soy, or a protein hydrolysate, which means the protein has been broken down into tiny pieces. Eighty percent of formulas start with cow’s milk, which is considered preferable for healthy infants because it’s closest in structure to human breast milk — our two top picks are both cow’s milk formulas. (Soy, the second most common, is typically only recommended for babies with milk allergies or lactose intolerance, and we have a pick for that, too.)
We gave each formula’s ingredients list a close reading. We looked for ones that used lactose as a sweetener above any other product — lactose is what adds sweetness to breast milk. Plus, we preferred formulas that stacked the digestion deck with hydrolyzed proteins, beneficial bacteria, and other goodies like DHA and ARA. Then we scooped, shook, sniffed, and sipped to test each for ease-of-mixing, smell, texture, and consistency. Yes, we tasted them. You’re welcome.
Our Picks for the Best Baby Formula
Our Top Pick
Enfamil Enspire Powdered Baby Formula It has a heftier price tag, but it's one of the only formulas that is enhanced with lactoferrin and MFGM. Plus, lactose is its only sweetener — no corn.
Enfamil Enspire is a premium choice — and unfortunately its price tag proves it. But there’s a lot to like about this formula: It’s designed to digest easily and does a remarkable job tailoring its ingredients to get a little closer to breast milk.
Enspire is made of partially hydrolyzed cow’s milk. Both cow’s milk and breast milk contain whey (the liquid material) and casein (solid proteins that form the basis of cheese). Whey stays in a liquid form after you drink it, so it moves more easily through your system, while casein curdles like cottage cheese, so the body has to work harder to break it down. The best baby formulas have more whey than casein, and if the whey is also hydrolyzed, or broken down, like it is in Enspire, it’s even gentler on your baby. There’s less work for their digestive system to do, which in theory means less spit-up, fussiness, and gas.
What really makes Enspire stand out are two relatively new enhancements to the US formula scene: lactoferrin and milk fat globule membrane (MFGM). Lactoferrin is a protein that occurs in high amounts in breast milk and especially in colostrum, the first “superfood” milk that’s produced after birth. Lactoferrin has been used in formula more widely in other countries, but was only recently allowed here by the FDA. Studies point to it being helpful in digestion and strengthening the immune system. The same is true for MFGM — research shows that babies who consume it in their formula show similar advantages in development as those of breastfed babies.
Enspire also adds prebiotics and probiotics to help encourage beneficial bacteria in the gut, and get closer to the profile of breast milk. Plus, it’s one of the only formulas we found that uses lactose as its only sweetener — the same as in breast milk. That’s a rare bonus, given the cost of lactose versus corn-based sweeteners; of our top picks, Enspire is one of only two that does this, which explains its heftier price tag. Enspire also guarantees non-GMO ingredients, which confers many of the same advantages as an organic label.
Enspire came out on top in our hands-on testing. It was milder-smelling than the other formulas we looked at, with a faintly sweet, almost nonexistent odor. Its texture is thick and creamy — closer to the consistency of half-and-half. It’s not too sweet on the tongue and tasted (to us) better than the rest. But your baby will be the better judge of that.
It may be pricey, but we appreciated Enfamil’s packaging, including a resealable bag and a separately wrapped scoop.
The biggest problem with Enspire is its cost. At $40 for 20.5 oz., you’re definitely paying for those special additives. It’s almost twice the cost of our next top pick, and if you’re using formula exclusively, as opposed to supplementing, that can really add up.
Better If You’re On a Budget
Gerber Good Start Gentle Powder Infant Formula A lot cheaper for a little more formula. Its sweetener is 30 percent corn, but the rest is lactose.
Gerber Good Start Gentle Powder Infant Formula is another great first formula for infants — and at $24 for 23 oz (or $17 for 13 oz), it’s a satisfying $16 cheaper than Enfamil Enspire for a slightly larger container. Similar to Enspire, its base protein is hydrolyzed whey to aid your baby’s digestion, and it also includes prebiotics, probiotics, and only non-GMO ingredients. The most notable difference between the two formulas, besides Gerber’s lack of lactoferrin and MFGM, is that lactose isn’t the only sweetener: Good Start Gentle is 70 percent lactose and 30 percent corn maltodextrin.
That 70 percent lactose is actually the reason Good Start Gentle is a top pick. We discovered that many formulas that purport to be gentler on digestion actually avoid lactose — there is staunch belief (or, at least, rampant marketing) that lactose equals fussiness. Enfamil Gentlease, for instance, lists corn syrup solids as its first ingredient and contains no lactose; Similac Sensitive also uses corn syrup solids, plus adds cane sugar. However, Dr. Cohen notes that true lactose intolerance is very rare in babies, and for all our top picks, we preferred lactose as it’s the sweetener naturally found in breast milk. (If you think your baby may be lactose intolerant, consult with your pediatrician about specialty or soy formulas.)
Gerber’s Good Start Gentle formula mixed up easily and smelled very similar to the Enspire; the only difference was a slightly less creamy texture. When we tasted it, we found that it was no sweeter than the Enspire, but it was definitely not as rich.
When we prepared servings of Enfamil Enspire (left) and Gerber Good Start Gentle (right), we found close similarities, with Enspire being a touch creamier.
Best Organic Baby Formula
Plum Organics Infant Formula An organic cow's milk and whey protein formula with organic lactose as its sweetener.
Organic labelling is a little tricky when it comes to infant formula. All formulas have added vitamins, minerals, and enhancements — they are mandated to by the FDA — which are synthetic, or derived synthetically, so they can’t be considered organic. In practice, an organic label on baby formula applies only to the protein, carbohydrate, and fat components of the formula (for instance, organic milk as a protein base, organic vegetable oil as a fat, and organic cane sugar as a carbohydrate).
Popular brand Honest Co. suffered a lawsuit over that distinction, but all organic baby formulas play by those rules, including our pick, Plum Organics Infant Formula. Plum is a cow’s milk and whey protein formula that’s new to market. We liked it because (you guessed it) it’s the only organic formula that uses only organic lactose as its sweetener — nothing else.
Earth’s Best Organic Infant Formula Earth's Best new formulation also has organic lactose as its only sweetener.
There’s no glucose or corn syrup solids, which show up in Honest Co. It doesn’t have any added cane sugar, which is a major drawback to the Similac Organic brand. And Vermont Organics Baby Formula and Walmart’s Parent’s Choice Organic Formula contain no lactose at all, preferring a combination of corn-based sweeteners instead. When it comes to sweeteners and organics, it seems you get what you pay for: At $33 for a 21 oz. container, it’s on par with Honest Co., but more expensive than Similac or Earth’s Best.
Speaking of Earth’s Best: About four months ago, its organic baby formula changed and it now has the same lactose-only profile as Plum — and includes prebiotics, which Plum lacks. However, the previous formulation is still for sale with other retailers like Walmart, and it contains glucose syrup solids as well as lactose. At $27 for 23 oz, Earth’s Best is somewhat cheaper than Plum, but we suggest buying it straight from the manufacturer, at least for now.
Best Soy Formula
Gerber Good Start Soy A non-GMO soy formula that isn't quite as sweet as most of its competitors.
For babies with a milk protein allergy or lactose intolerance, soy formulas can be a good choice. Granted, these conditions are rare, and most doctors, including Dr. Cohen, recommend starting with a dairy-based formula because its proteins are closest to that of human milk. If you have a family history of milk allergies, that’s when you should talk to your baby’s doctor about starting on a soy formula.
We like Gerber Good Start Soy, because, like all our top picks, it’s extra-gentle for babies: The soy protein is partially hydrolyzed to ease digestion. It’s also one of the only soy formulas to use non-GMO soy. The main sweetener here is corn maltodextrin, plus some sucrose — we prefer it to Similac Soy Isomil, another popular option, because it has less sucrose, and maltodextrin isn’t as sweet as corn syrup solids. At $24 for 26 oz, it’s also fairly affordable. We should note, though, that Good Start Soy doesn’t include prebiotics or probiotics, unlike many of our other top picks — those additives in soy formula haven’t been clinically evaluated.
In hands-on testing, this formula was also slightly less pungent than the Similac. Soy formulas are definitely stinkier than the dairy-based ones. They also taste stronger — a bit fishy, and sweeter too.
Other Baby Formulas to Consider
Store-brand infant formulas made by Costco, Walmart (Parent’s Choice), Target (Up & Up), Babies R Us, and many others are manufactured to replicate popular name-brand choices. You can find store brands that directly compare themselves to Enfamil, Similac, and Gerber products. Dr. Frank Greer, a former member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Nutrition, says that he recommends the generic brands to his own family members because they undergo the same testing and have the same essential nutritional components as the name-brand choices. When considering store-brand options, just look carefully at the ingredient list to find out if your preferences for protein source, sweeteners, and enhancements are included.
One of our favorites is Costco’s Kirkland Signature Non-GMO Infant Formula. Its ingredients compare to that of Gerber Good Start Gentle with added prebiotics, whey protein, and, surprisingly, lactose as the only sweetener. At half the cost (around $17 for 34 oz), it’s a pretty fantastic choice. One caveat: It does not hydrolyze the milk protein like Good Start, so it might not sit quite as well in particularly tender tummies.
Another great generic choice is Target’s Up & Up Infant Formula Premium, which also has lactose as its only sweetener, along with added prebiotics, and whey protein. It does use GMO ingredients, however, unlike the Costco brand.
All soy formulas are lactose-free, but dairy-based formulas can also be lactose-free if the lactose (sugar) is removed from the milk. These formulas are great for parents who want to avoid soy, but are concerned about lactose intolerance in their babies. Keep in mind, though, that lactose intolerance in infants is actually quite rare. The American Academy of Family Physicians says that lactose intolerance is over-diagnosed in infancy, and that most proven cases develop around the 12-month mark. Lactose-free formulas include all soy options, along with Enfamil ProSobee and Similac Sensitive, and are best selected in conjunction with your pediatrician.
Our Top Picks at a Glance
Prebiotics and/or Probiotics
DHA and/or ARA
$40 for 20.5 oz
Lactose, corn maltodextrin
$24 for 23 oz
Organic cow's milk
$33 for 21 oz
Organic cow's milk
Organic lactose, organic glucose syrup solids
$33 for 23 oz
Organic cow's milk
$27 for 23 oz
Corn maltodextrin, sucrose
$24 for 26 oz
$17 for 34 oz
$23 for 40 oz
Notes: (1) Enfamil Enspire also contains lactoferrin and MFGM. (2) Costco’s Kirkland Signature baby formula uses non-hydrolyzed cow’s milk.
What We Looked For
To narrow the pool from over 90 products down to the handful we recommend, we read through scientific studies and consulted with pediatricians and a food policy specialist to get a broad range of view points. Here’s a closer look at what we looked for — and why — but remember that your own doctor is likely the best source for finding what’s going to work best for your own baby.
Lactose as a Sweetener
Yum, carbs. Turns out that babies love that sugary taste just as much as grown-ups — and in fact, they require it. Breast milk gets its sweetness from lactose. However, lactose can be expensive, so many formula makers have switched to lower-cost plant-based sweeteners, including corn syrup solids, glucose syrup solids, maltodextrin, and cane sugar or sucrose itself.
The issue isn’t necessarily the type of sweetener, but how sweet it is to the taste. For instance, lactose isn’t nearly as intensely sweet as sucrose. Maltodextrin, which can be derived from potato starch, corn starch, or rice starch, is also less sweet than sucrose. This handy chart shows relative sweetness as compared to sucrose. Notice that corn syrup solids are much less sweet than high-fructose corn syrup (only the former is used in infant formula, so no worries there).
The concern is that overly sweet formulas will lead infants to develop a taste for extra sugar as they get older. Over consumption of sweet foods (especially sugary drinks) is widely linked to obesity and other poor health outcomes. An NBC investigation found that some formulas have much higher levels of sweetener per gram than others. A separate investigation by The New York Times into the sweetness of a popular organic brand formula found that it was as sweet as grape juice.
The medical community is divided on whether this is a health concern or not. “Since before the advent of infant formulas, sugar has been added to cow milk fed to infants,” says Dr. Greer. “I do not know of any harm of adding sugar to infant formula to increase its sugar content closer to that found in human milk.” However, others disagree. The EU, citing concerns about childhood obesity, has banned sucrose and cane sugar from infant formulas and mandates the use of lactose for at least 50 percent of the carbohydrate. Vallaeys affirms, “If you’re going to feed an infant, and the infant’s natural food is breast milk, lactose is the kind of sugar to use.”
With this question unresolved, when it comes to dairy formulas, we favored those that use lactose as the main sweetener.
Formulas Designed for Easy Digestion
There are two main ways formulas can be adapted for better digestion. Partially hydrolyzed formulas, which make up the majority of our top picks, give tiny tummies a head start in breaking down proteins. “Partially digested formulas are excellent for irritable babies,” Dr. Cohen says (though not for babies with true allergies). Not all babies are irritable, but all things being equal, we preferred formulas that stack the deck digestively.
A good whey-casein ratio is also important. Breast milk is about 60 percent whey and 40 percent casein — some sources have it more like 70:30 — while cow’s milk is about 82 percent casein. We wanted formulas that have a higher whey ratio that mimics breast milk.
These days, the majority of infant formulas are enhanced with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). These tongue-twisting ingredients may sound like scary chemicals, but DHA and ARA are just omega-3 fatty acids that occur naturally in breast milk and certain foods, like eggs and fish. In the vast majority of enhanced infant formulas, the DHA and ARA are extracted from algae and fungal sources.
Some research indicates that this added DHA and ARA can help infant eyesight and brain development; other studies say benefits are inconclusive. Nonetheless, they’re widely used in infant formulas, and the majority of the medical community agrees they’re helpful. Dr. Cohen says, “I do emphasize that DHA is really important.” Because of this and their sheer prevalence, all our top picks contain these additives.
That said, DHA and ARA are not without controversy. A chemical called hexane is used to extract DHA and ARA from their algae and fungal sources. This rings alarm bells for organic proponents because of the toxic nature of hexane. It is possible to use a water-extraction process, but the FDA has yet to study and approve this for infant formulas. Vallaeys notes that the National Organic Standards Board actually voted not to allow DHA and ARA extracted with hexane in organic infant formulas, but the USDA has not enforced this. The food policy think tank Cornucopia Institute has reviewed the research and raised serious concerns about the use of hexane-extracted DHA and ARA in formulas, related to how these additives are processed and overseen, and whether they truly provide the touted benefits. These days, it’s difficult to find a formula that doesn’t include added DHA and ARA, but if you are concerned about this issue, Honest Co. Organic Infant Formula is a good choice.
All organic formulas must use non-GMO ingredients, but other formulas also use non-GMO ingredients. Vallaeys explains that the majority of GMO crops grown in the US are genetically engineered to resist pesticides, especially glyphosate, which is the “most commonly used herbicide in the US.” Therefore, “the farmer can spray the weed killer in a field with the GMO corn and soy plants, which won’t be killed by it. Glyphosate is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as probably carcinogenic to humans. It’s why we consider it to be such a concern.” Given the potential risk for even small amounts of pesticide residue, we preferred formulas that use non-GMO ingredients.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Ready for another set of tongue twisters? Many infant formulas now include prebiotics (usually galacto-oligosaccharides) and probiotics (beneficial bacteria.) Probiotics promote healthy digestion, while prebiotics can strengthen immune systems. Both show up naturally in breast milk, and in large quantities. Research is positive about these enhancements. For example, studies show that probiotics can help babies with diarrhea and viral tummy troubles, while prebiotics alone or in combination with probiotics can help reduce eczema and other allergic reactions. In the fight against fussiness and the quest for a happy baby, prebiotics and probiotics could help you get there. That’s why the majority of our top picks contain one or both of them.
Did You Know?
It will be pretty obvious if your formula isn’t agreeing with your baby.
You want to find a formula that your baby enjoys and digests easily. Are they content and thriving, or suffering from digestive issues? You’ll know it: Food response will directly affect your baby’s sleep and mood — and yours, too, most likely. Babies with food allergies or digestion troubles will show signs like diarrhea or constipation, gas, reflux, dry or red skin, or chronic fussiness.
“Not every baby is the same. It’s important to choose the right formula in a logical way, instead of jumping from one brand to another. Sometimes the first choice doesn’t always work, and you have to go to something else.”
Dr. Cohen recommends trying one brand at a time. When switching, he emphasizes going slowly, and giving it time. “Substitute one new bottle in the middle of the first day, adding one more new bottle each day until the new formula has replaced the old.” Be sure to wait enough time; it can take a week to see changes in irritability, and up to 30 days to see a difference for allergic rashes.
Babies shouldn’t drink regular cow’s or soy milk.
Babies cannot absorb the right balance of nutrients from regular cow’s milk or soy milk, neither of which babies should drink in their first year of life. Breast milk or infant formula is all they need for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, at least for the first four to six months. At that point, many families start introducing solid foods.
A milk allergy is different than lactose intolerance, but they’re both pretty uncommon.
“A milk allergy is a reaction to a milk protein — most likely beta-lactoglobulin or casein, but it could be one of the whey proteins — while lactose intolerance is usually a milder reaction to the sugar in milk,” explains Dr. Cohen. He says anywhere from 3 to 8 percent of babies suffer from milk allergy, and of the two, a milk allergy will cause the more severe reaction than problems with lactose. Symptoms of milk allergy can include rash, colic, nausea, and vomiting — any of which warrant a call to your doctor.
The Bottom Line
All infant formulas are designed, regulated, and manufactured to meet your baby’s nutritional needs. That’s a relief, isn’t it? From there, it’s all about what particular ingredients work best for your baby. Make it easy on everyone and start with the gentlest formulas. Take a look at the ingredients; decide what’s important to you when it comes to organics and enhancements; and then try a few options. You can trust that you’ll know when you’ve landed on the right one because you’ll have a happy, healthy baby on your hands.
Our Top Pick
Enfamil Enspire Powdered Baby Formula An easily digestible formula sweetened exclusively with lactose.
Talk to your doctor. Always consult with your pediatrician about formula decisions, especially before you change something, or if you’re concerned about your baby’s reaction.
Find the right formula for your baby — and know it might take some time. Don’t invest in huge quantities of one formula right away. Make sure your choice agrees with your baby. Often, you can request samples from companies before you settle on a brand.
Check expiration dates. For formulas, the expiration date represents the point until which all the nutritional components are guaranteed. If you’re buying in bulk to save some cash, pay especially close attention.
Always prepare formulas safely. First and foremost, make sure you’re using clean, sanitized water as the base for mixing. Boil the water for one minute before you use it, and then make sure the formula cools to room temperature before serving.