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Why I won’t buy store brand baby formula

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I’ll admit I was a little bit naive when it came to planning for the birth of my first son. I was going to breastfeed because it was the best thing I could do for him…and it would save me a couple thousand dollars that would otherwise be spent on formula and bottles. It never occurred to me that the method of feeding was more than just a simple decision I had to make, and I might not be able to breastfeed. But as it turned out, between a health condition on my part and protein sensitivities on my baby’s part, we just couldn’t do it and the cost of formula feeding soon reared its ugly head.

Formula is the single most expensive baby item that we have had to purchase on a regular basis. A 25.7-ounce can of the “regular” brand name powdered baby formula that we tried first cost about $25.00. My son couldn’t digest the regular stuff, so we soon found ourselves purchasing the slightly more expensive “gentle” formula (about $25.00 for 24 ounces). Trying to find ways to make formula more affordable and put our monthly budget back into the black, I researched generic (or store brand) baby formulas (read more about affording baby formula here). After reading information from doctors, moms and formula companies, I was comfortable trying generic formula, which would cost significantly less.

The FDA has implemented strict guidelines for baby formula manufacturers. There are numerous nutritional requirements that any baby formula must meet. That means that, nutritionally, the $15 store brand formula is no different from the $25 can of brand-name powder. Why the vast difference in price? Just like with other generic products, the companies that manufacture store brands do not spend the extra money on groundbreaking research, expensive marketing campaigns, hospital and doctors’ office freebies, and fancy packaging. Most of the store brands you’ll find on the shelves, including Parent’s Choice at Walmart, Simply Right (formerly Member’s Mark) at Sam’s Club, Up & Up at Target, and Babies R Us are all manufactured by the same company, Perrigo Nutritionals (formerly PBM Products).

My son was doing well on the brand-name gentle formula and I thought that, all things being equal, it made sense to switch to the store brand in order to save almost $10 per can. You’ll notice that the store brands offer a variety of different formulas to match up with the offerings from Similac and Enfamil, even copying the colors that the well-known companies use for their packaging. They tout their products as being identical to the more expensive brands, showing side-by-side the same quantities of vitamins, minerals and nutrients. They make a pretty convincing argument that it’s just plain silly to spend extra money when you don’t need to — I saw magazine ads that said “The only difference is the price”. What was I waiting for?

I picked up a purple can of store-brand powder hoping my son would be able to tolerate it. I noticed right away that it wasn’t the same as the Enfamil Gentlease I had been buying. It had a different consistency, a deeper color, and a different smell. But I knew that nutritionally it was the same, so I carried on.

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Image from Parents Choice website

My baby’s negative reaction to the new formula was immediate and severe enough that I threw away half a can of the store brand powder, never to try it again. While he was able to tolerate the brand-name gentle formula, his colicky symptoms returned with the store brand. Worst of all, he became severely constipated on the new formula. My baby was in a tremdous amount of pain and even bleeding just because I had switched his formula. I was absolutely horrified that I had caused my child to suffer in order to save some money.

But why hadn’t he been able to tolerate the store brand? Wasn’t it exactly the same as the more expensive formula? That’s what I was told! I decided to take a closer look. I set the two cans side by side, and reviewed the Nutrition Facts. Yep, they were the same. Then, I looked at the ingredients. NOT the same. The store brand uses “Nonfat Milk” as its second ingredient and “Whey Protein Hydrosolate” fourth. Enfamil Gentlease has “Partially Hydrolyzed Nonfat Milk and Whey Protein Concentrate Solids (Soy)” listed second. It would appear that in the Enfamil, both the milk and whey proteins are broken down (hydrolyzed), while in the store brand only the whey (hydrosolate) is made easier to digest. Breaking down these proteins, which some sensitive babies have difficulty digesting, is what makes a formula “gentle”.

Store brands such as Parents Choice advertise that their Gentle Formula contains 1/4 the lactose of regular formulas, while Enfamil advertises that Gentlease has about 1/5 the amount. That can make a world of difference for lactose-sensitive babies. The two brands also differed in the amounts and types of fillers that are used, which definitely explained the difference in appearance, and could explain the severe constipation my baby experienced.

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While I do think that brand-name formula is unecessarily expensive, the additional research funded by the company seems to have helped produce a better, gentler product for my baby. I believe it is wrong for retailers to mislead parents by marketing their store brands as identical to the name brands except for the price. Identical Nutrition Facts are not the same as identical ingredients; I could drink a breakfast shake with the same nutritional content as a meal, but that doesn’t make it the same.

I’m not trying to scare parents away from generics entirely, but as with any product, be sure to do your research and be on the lookout for adverse reactions. If your baby has no digestive problems, you may be able to offer generic formula without ill results, and save a lot of money in doing so. If you are feeding your baby a gentle formula due to digestive problems, however, I would proceed with caution. Keep in mind that generic and brand name formulas are different products, and focus on finding the one that works best for your baby.

Why I won’t buy store brand formula ever again

My son reacted to generic formula in a way that other babies might not. Many parents use store brand formula with no problem whatsoever. I am not here to tell you that store brand formula is dangerous, unhealthy, or anything else. But I personally will never try using it again, and here’s why:

  • I felt betrayed by the misleading advertising and will not help fund more of the same. At the end of the day, generic formula companies are out to make money just like the big guys.
  • A happy, healthy, comfortable baby is more important than saving money.
  • Formula feeding is not ideal, but some of us have to do it. I would rather support companies that conduct research to produce the best possible imitation of breastmilk, not imitation of other formulas.

NOTE: Some readers have been confused about my “flagging” of suspicious comments.  I do not flag comments simply because they are negative or disagree with my point of view. I have caught companies sending employees or representatives to my blog posing as regular consumers in order to do damage control or spread good reviews. I have zero tolerance for companies tricking my readers with fake comments that promote their business or otherwise try to undermine my work on this website. I leave the comments in place, but “flag” them, so my real readers can see the tactics they use. If you are affiliated with a company that I write about, feel free to comment, even if you disagree.  But you MUST disclose your relationship, just as I do with every product or company that I discuss.

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