A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but what effect does it have on the youngest of all eaters?
Suburban grandmother Nancy Brecj said she could not believe her eyes when she couldn’t find a sugar amount listed on her granddaughter’s infant formula.
"We looked at all the formulas in the grocery store, even the store brand ones, and none of them listed the sugar grams per serving. None of them," Brecj told NBC Chicago.
Baby Kimberly’s weight had recently shot up four pounds in one month, Brecj said, after her mother switched her from breast milk to formula. As she was preparing Kimberly’s bottle of Enfamil one day, Brecj said she began to wonder exactly how much sugar was in it.
A call to the formula maker did not satisfy her concern.
"I called the company and I said, 'You know, how many grams of sugar per serving are in your baby formula?' And (they said), 'Well, ma'am, we don't add sugar to our baby formulas.'"
With ‘corn syrup’ solids listed first on the ingredients part of the label, Brecj said she wasn’t buying that answer. She knew sugar was in there, but how much?
She asked Target 5: "Why doesn't it list the grams of sugar?"
Her question took NBC Chicago to independent lab Deibel Laboratories with seven popular brands of formula we bought for testing. Scientists conducted a sugar profile on each sample, testing for five types of sugars.
Among the notable sugar findings:
Enfamil Premium and Parent's Choice premium infant formulas had the highest sugar content, at 13.5 and 12.4 grams per serving. The amounts are high but experts say the type of sugar revealed is the best: lactose, the same type found in breast milk.
Three brands tested low for any sugar: Gerber Good Start, Similac Advance Complete and Enfamil Pro-Sobee.
Conversely, in two types of formula made by Similac, the test revealed other added sugars.
Similac Advance Organic Complete Nutrition contained one of the sweetest kind: sucrose -- measuring in at 3.5 grams of sugar per serving. Similac Soy Infant Formula with Iron contained four kinds of added sugar, including sucrose, for a total of 3.8 grams per serving, roughly the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar every 5 ounces
In Europe, concern over childhood obesity led to a ban on sucrose in baby formula. Dozens of countries do not allow the kind of sugar we found in the two Similac brands.
We shared our results with Chicago pediatric dentist Kevin Boyd, who also has a Masters in nutrition and dietetics. Boyd said he has long been concerned about the sweetness of formula and the effect it has on babies.
"We're conditioning them to crave sweetness," Boyd said. "I would say any formula that has sucrose, it’s super sweet, it makes the kid crave sugar. It triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, and it’s a comfort-level thing. It makes the kid want to eat more, so they become hypersensitive to sweetness."
While the amounts of sugar grams may be low, Boyd said the impact on babies is huge.
"They're conditioned to just really like super sweet…. And their fat cells are saying more, more, more please."
He said some of the formulas are so sweet -- he calls them "baby milkshakes" -- and believes they may play a role in our country’s battle with childhood obesity.
"If a child makes too many fat cells, they never go away. And they always want to be fed," he said.
While the Food and Drug administration does regulate many aspects of formula, it does not require makers to list sugar amounts. The agency is also silent when it comes to how much sugar is allowed.
The maker of Enfamil said it does not include any added sugars, including sucrose, because they are not found in breast milk. The maker of Parents Choice echoed that philosophy. The maker of Similac did not respond directly to our questions, but industry group The International Formula Council did step in to point out sucrose has been found safe in both clinical trials and years of consumer use.
The IFC's full statement:
Similar to breast milk, most milk-based infant formulas contain a carbohydrate called lactose, which is the sugar found in milk. In some formulas, corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, or sucrose are used to replace some or all of the lactose to maintain a carbohydrate level, similar to human milk. Corn syrup solids are NOT the same as high-fructose corn syrup.
Lactose, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, and sucrose are safe ingredients and some of the carbohydrates that may be used to provide calories for energy needed by term infants. All of these carbohydrates have been shown in clinical studies and many years of consumer use to be safe, and support normal growth and development in infants. International Formula Council* (IFC) members select infant formula ingredients for their ability to meet nutritional targets and assure product quality.
Infant formulas are highly regulated and must meet rigorous safety and quality standards set by national and international regulatory authorities, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health Canada, the European Union and other regulatory agencies.
According to 21 CFR 107.10, the labels on infant formula packaging must declare total carbohydrates. Individual carbohydrates are not required to be listed on the nutrient panel for infant formulas, but are provided on the product label’s ingredient list.
Parents and health professionals can be assured infant formula is safe and nutritious.