Note: This article was originally published in May 2009. I have not researched current product offerings to determine whether formulas have changed since then. I do stand by my original warning that different brands are not quite identical, and to use caution when switching to a different formula. I am not affiliated with any of the brands mentioned.
I’ll admit I was a little bit naive when it came to planning for the birth of my first son. I knew 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.
But 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.
These companies 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 stated “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. But 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. However, I knew that nutritionally it was the same, so I carried on.
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 had been promised!
I decided to take a closer look. I set the two cans side by side, and reviewed the Nutrition Facts. Yes, the numbers were the same.
Next, I explored the ingredients, and that’s where I discovered some subtle differences.
The store brand listed “Nonfat Milk” as its second ingredient and Whey Protein Hydrosolate fourth. Enfamil Gentlease, meanwhile, had 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 advertised that their Gentle Formula contained 1/4 the lactose of regular formulas, while Enfamil advertised that Gentlease has about 1/5 the amount.
Too close to matter? I believe that tiny differences can make a world of difference in tiny lactose-sensitive bodies.
I also noticed that the two brands differed in the amounts and types of fillers that they used, which definitely explained the difference in appearance, and could explain the severe constipation that my baby experienced.
While I do feel, like most parents, that brand-name formula is 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 (which list amounts of nutrients) are simply not the same thing as identical ingredient lists.
I’m certainly not trying to scare parents away from generics entirely — I know that many parents face difficult choices due to tight budgets. But as with any product, be sure to do your research and be on the lookout for adverse reactions if you decide to make a change.
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 extra 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 I saw, and I will not help to fund more of the same. At the end of the day, generic formula companies are out to make money just like the better known corporations — there is no altruistic mission at the bottom of their enterprise. I guess you could say I’m boycotting them.
- I’ve decided that having a happy, healthy, comfortable baby is more important than saving a bit of money for one year.
- 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 breast milk, not an imitation of other formulas.
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