On April 27th, the news broke that the Organic Consumers Association was suing two companies over their organic baby formulas, claiming they contained hazardous substances that are illegal to put in organic products. The two companies named in the lawsuits, The Honest Company and Earth’s Best, claim their products are made in compliance with FDA and USDA organic regulations and say the lawsuit is unfounded. (See my previous post on the loophole that allowed them to add these chemicals.)
The lawsuits point not to just problems with these two companies in particular, but to the entire organic baby formula industry. A quick trip to my local grocery store led me to find the two other organic options on store shelves that contained most of the the same additives named in the lawsuit.
Nature’s One and PediaSmart owned by Nature’s One are certified organic by OneCert organic and contain most of the chemicals named in the OCA lawsuits.
Further searching led me to find that all other organic baby formulas on the market contain many of the same chemicals that OCA claims are illegal to use.
Here is a chart that lists each chemical and organic brand of baby formula I could find. Click to see it full-size.
I was planning to make this all one big post, but there are SO many chemicals here, I’m going to have to split this up in to a multi-part series. Should we be concerned about these chemicals added as vitamins? We’ll take a look at them individually.
According to the OCA lawsuit against Honest Company:
Sodium Selenite is a hazardous substance. See, e.g., 40 C.F.R. §§ 116.4, 302.4. The FDA allows it to be added to animal feed, 21 C.F.R. § 573.920, but it has never been determined it to be safe to be added to foods for human consumption. Even at very low doses, animal studies show it has negative effects on the respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and metabolic systems, negatively impacts the liver, and has negative broad systemic effects. It is not permitted to be added to products labeled as “organic.” 7 C.F.R. §§ 205.105(c), 205.605 (the “National List”); Cal. Health & Safety Code § 110820.
The certifiers of the baby formula have approved the sodium selenite to be in the organic formula under the “vitamins and nutrients” allowance, as sodium selenite provides the trace nutrient selenium. Selenium is a tricky nutrient–you have to get just the right amount of it for it to benefit your health. (See my article on selenium here for more info.) Sodium selenite is an inorganic form of selenium that the body may not be able to metabolize well, and, in too high of a concentration can be harmful. The naturally-occurring amino acids selenomethionine and selenocysteine found in foods are much easier for the body to use and are typically the most beneficial forms of selenium. (Source) Breast milk contains trace amounts of selenium (and is higher if the mother is getting adequate dietary selenium from her foods). Despite varying amounts of selenium in breast milk and the addition of selenium “nutrients” to baby formulas, most breast-fed babies get more selenium (likely due to bioavailability.) (Source) Goat’s milk contains selenium, although reportedly it’s about as half as bioavailable as breast milk. (Source)
The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements recommends that an infant up to 6 months have 15 mcg of selenium a day. Typically formulas provide about 2 mcg selenium per serving, so about 7 feedings would provide that amount. Sodium selenite has been found to be bioavailable to some degree, and the amounts in the formula do not appear to come close to pushing the upper limits of what a baby should have (45 mcg per day.) A baby would need to be fed a full serving 22 times in a day to reach the upper limit.
Bottom Line: Yes, sodium selenite can be toxic at relatively low doses–any selenium compound can be. At the same time, selenium is an important antioxidant and trace nutrient that our bodies need. Should it be allowed in an organic product? That’s not for me to say. However, a company could add organically-produced nutritional yeast to a formula to provide bioavailable selenium instead of using sodium selenite.
The OCA has the following to say about taurine in the Honest Company’s baby formula:
Even at very low doses, animal studies show the ingredient negatively impacts the brain and nervous system, metabolism, and cardiovascular system. Commercially available taurine is synthetically produced by reacting ethylene oxide with aqueous sodium bisulfate, reacting aziridine with sulfurous acid, or reacting monoethanolamine, sulfuric acid, and sodium sulfite. The FDA has not affirmed taurine to be safe in foods. Nonetheless, Honest has added it to the “Organic” Infant Formula.
Many people associate taurine with energy drinks, but it has actually been used in baby formulas for thirty years. It is not a stimulant and can actually help with relaxation. (Source)
Taurine is an amino acid that exists naturally in our bodies. In fact, .1% of our body’s mass is made up of taurine. Taurine naturally occurs in breastmilk and is added to baby formulas to closely mimic what a baby would get from its mother. Amino acids are essential for the growth and development of an infant and most research points to infants needing dietary taurine, as their bodies can’t synthesize it well in their own. (Source) Taurine deficiency in babies can lead to “impaired fat absorption, bile acid secretion, retinal function, and hepatic function.” There have been numerous studies that have shown that babies given taurine-supplemented formulas end up with higher developmental scores. According to one study, “the Bayley mental developmental index at 18 months of age and the WISC-R arithmetic subtest score at 7 years of age are correlated with plasma taurine concentrations during infancy.”
A maximum amount of 12 mg / 100 kcal of taurine is the recommended dose in an infant formula to mimic the amount on breast milk. (Source)
I’m not sure where OCA is getting their information about taurine’s negative effects, or what their definition of a very low dose is, but the lack of taurine can be devastating to development. That said, the commercial production of taurine sounds like a toxic process that may not be appropriate for an organic product. Goat milk has almost as much taurine as breast milk; organic formulators might consider relying on the nutrition inherent to goat milk to provide taurine to an infant instead of adding it to the formula. (Source)
More chemicals to follow in the days to come!