What Proteins are Used in Baby Formulas and Why are They Used?

What Proteins are Used in Baby Formulas and Why are They Used?

Posted by Diane, MPH, RD, LD - Director of Nutrition Services on Dec 10th 2020

There are so many different types of formulas on the market, but what makes them so different? It’s the protein source! Certain proteins can be harder to digest, and some can even cause allergic reactions for some children. I frequently get questions about different types of proteins and why they are used in certain formulas, so I thought a short article on this topic may be helpful especially to new parents!

Proteins are the building blocks for all tissues in the body. They are extremely important for how the body works because proteins are used to make hormones, enzymes, and other substances to support growth and development. Protein can either be animal-based or plant-based. Here’s a list of proteins and how and why they’re used in formula:

Dairy (animal-based) options include:

Nonfat cow’s milk

Nonfat cow’s milk has been the “go to” substitute when breast milk is not available. It contains the essential proteins that little ones need without the butter fat, which can be hard for infants to digest. When nonfat milk is used, it's accompanied by an appropriate blend of oils to ensure that the full complement of good fats is available. Standard nonfat cow’s milk is used in the manufacturing of both organic and non-organic formulas by various companies, including our Premium Dairy Formula.

Whey protein – The two primary proteins in mammalian milks are whey and casein. If you remember the nursery rhyme about Little Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey, she was probably eating cottage cheese! The small curds in cottage cheese are casein and the watery portion is whey. Human milk has an average of 60% whey and 40% casein whereas cow’s milk is 18% whey and 82% casein. To resemble mother’s milk more closely, a combination of nonfat cow’s milk with added whey protein is used in many formulas. Whey protein is used in the manufacturing of both organic and non-organic formulas. You’ll find Whey protein in both our Gentle Dairy Whey and Dairy Whey DHA Formulas. These formulas may aid in digestion and help produce softer stools.

Organic milk protein concentrate (used in organic formulas*) Vs milk protein isolate (used in non-organic formulas) – The difference in name between the organic and non-organic forms of this milk ingredient is based on the method by which the ingredient is treated to remove lactose. This milk protein ingredient is used to manufacture formulas for children with a sensitivity or intolerance to lactose (milk sugar). We use organic milk protein concentrate in our Sensitive DHA/ARA Formula.

Casein hydrolysate – The casein portion of cow’s milk is broken down into amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and small peptides (2 or more amino acids linked together) to reduce allergic responses to the proteins in cow’s milk and is often recommended when children are diagnosed with cow’s milk protein allergies. Some formula companies also sell partial hydrolysate formulas and claim “easier digestion” because some of the cow’s milk protein has been broken down.Organic options are not available for either total or partial hydrolyzed protein formulas.

There has been a growing interest in plant-based formulas largely due to the growing interest in our planet’s sustainability with many families choosing a more vegetarian lifestyle. Traditionally, the only plant-based option was a soy formula. Thankfully, other options are now available!

Plant-based options include:

Pea Protein concentrate – Peas are legumes just like soybeans, peanuts, and many dried beans. While soy protein is an allergen, pea protein is not a major allergen like soy and mashed peas are often fed as one of the first foods offered to a child. Baby’s Only Organic® Pea Protein Formula was the first pea protein-based formula introduced in 2019. It can be used as a vegetarian formula; for lactose intolerance; and for galactosemia. Because pea protein allergy is rare, it is a possible option for children with cow’s milk protein allergies and intolerances.

Soy protein concentrate (used in organic formulas*) Vs soy protein isolate (used in non-organic formulas) – The difference in name between the organic and non-organic forms of this soy protein ingredient is also based on the method used to extract the soy protein. Soy formulas have been used for children with a cow’s milk protein intolerance, but not for a diagnosed cow’s milk protein allergy. The reason is that a good percentage of children with cow’s milk protein allergy may be allergic to soy protein. Other reasons for use of a soy formula are lactose intolerance because lactose is not used as a carbohydrate source, preference for a plant-based formula, and the genetic condition known as galactosemia.

Almond butter – Like peanut butter, almond butter is a major allergen.There are still questions regarding its use for feeding infants or as a sole source of nutrition. Questions exists on whether an almond butter-based formula provides complete protein needs. The verdict is still out on whether this is in fact an option for infants and young children.

Proteins Used in Baby / Toddler / Children's Formula Infographic for dairy and plant based options.

As with any decision regarding what type of formula to use with your little one, always check with your child’s healthcare provider for advice.

If this type of ingredient information is helpful, let me know. I’m happy to provide additional information that you find useful!


*Organic versions of these protein sources are made without harsh chemicals. These chemicals are not allowed for use in organic products.