Bacteria Business: Decoding Baby Formula Labels

Decoding baby formula labels

A walk through the baby formula aisle at the store can be daunting! There are so many options and the labels are full of different ingredients and health claims for infants and toddlers. This week we got the following nutrition question from a Chicago-area mom: I am a breastfeeding mom, and I am also supplementing with formula. I am confused by the difference between prebiotics and probiotics in baby formula. Can you help clarify this?

Because of the known health benefits of breastmilk, baby formula is often formulated to include some of the naturally occurring components of breastmilk. Probiotics and prebiotics are both found in breastmilk and have made their way into baby formula over the past 10 years.

Prebiotics are carbohydrates and the precursors to probiotics. They help create the right environment for probiotics to work and do their job. They serve as the food source for the good bacteria (or probiotics). Prebiotics are found in abundance in breastmilk, specifically Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMO). Many formula companies are now adding prebiotics to infant formula.  The common names for the prebiotics found in infant formula are: Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), Galactooligosaccharides (GOS), Polydextrose and 2′-Fucosyllactose (2-FL). While the prebiotics found in formula don’t provide all of the immune functions of naturally occurring HMO in breastmilk, studies indicate they can help grow the good bacteria in a baby’s intestines.

Probiotics are the actual beneficial bacteria that live in our bodies and can have health protective qualities for babies and adults alike. They are added to infant formula with the goal that they will help populate babies’ intestines and provide balance between good bacteria and bad bacteria. While some baby formulas also now contain probiotics, they are not found as commonly and widespread as prebiotics in formula. The common names for the probiotics found in infant formula are: B. lactisand L. Reuteri.  Hopefully this helps “decode” the labels a bit!