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Beetles, BPA and Babies, Oh My!

By Shadi Houshyar

September 27, 2010

As a parent, navigating the world of baby products, foods, and formulas is already overwhelming. But my fears continue to heighten each time I see stories in the news like the recent recall of certain Similac Powder Infant Formulas. This most recent Similac recall notes that the powder may contain “beetles or their larvae” and cause infants to “experience symptoms of gastrointestinal discomfort and refusal to eat as a result of small insect parts irritating the GI tract.”

Beetles in formula? Oh my! The Similac recall is just the latest of a long line of recalls in baby formula. Just between 1982 and 1994 alone, there were 22 significant recalls of infant formula in the U.S. from well known companies including Nestle (Carnation), Abbott, Mead Johnson, Wyeth, Nutricia and more due to health and safety problems. Formulas were recalled for contamination of Salmonella, Klebsiella Pneumoniae and even bits of glass.

Most of us assume that organic is best, not just for ourselves but for our babies too. Well, think again. In recent years, many have questioned the organic label and what it means. A few years ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that synthetic additives in organic baby formula violated federal standards and should be banned from a product carrying the federal organic label. According to agency records, when the issue came before the USDA in 2006, the agency concluded that the fatty acids could not be added to organic baby formula because they are synthetics that are not on the standards board's approved list. Along the way, that decision was overruled, and today those same additives – DHA and ARA - which are thought to boost brainpower and vision, are found in 90 percent of organic baby formulas. (DHA and ARA are found in non-organic formulas, too.)

Since 2002, infant formula manufacturers have been fortifying products with DHA/ARA. But what is troubling is that the DHA and ARA oils in some infant formulas are extracted from laboratory grown fermented algae or fungus and processed using a toxic chemical called hexane. The benefits of adding DHA and ARA to infant formula are uncertain, as is the potential effect of hexane exposure on babies.

And as if we don’t already have enough to worry about, there’s more! BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which can mimic the body's own hormones and may lead to negative health effects. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), BPA has been detected in 16 of 20 liquid formula samples tested by the FDA and EWG. Furthermore, we have reason to believe that exposure to infants and toddlers may be much higher given that many are fed milk in polycarbonate bottles that contain BPA, which have been warmed and heat increases the rate of BPA leaching.

With all of this uncertainty surrounding formulas, it’s no surprise that parents are worried about providing the best food for their babies. It’s clear that we need to protect children from exposure to toxins like BPA, and parents need better, safer choices in formulas, foods and products for their children. But, this isn’t a hopeless case. There’s a lot we can do. We can start by improving our food safety laws (including label regulations), banning BPA from children’s products, and expanding our research efforts into the effects DHA and ARA usage. Our babies deserve better and we as parents should demand it!

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