Parents who incorporate formula into their baby’s feeding plan face a market packed with options. Should you buy Enfamil? Similac? Gerber? What about the organic choices in specialty stores and online? It can be both emotional and overwhelming. But rising above all that noise is another choice—organic formula produced in Europe.
“I breastfed for four months and making the decision to switch to formula was really hard,” says Shelby Muhammedi, whose son Asher is 8 months old. “There is a lot of pressure to breastfeed and no matter how long you do it for, there’s always pressure to do it longer. I wanted to feel confident that I gave him something clean and organic, so I went with Holle.” Muhammedi, who lives in New York, heard about Holle, a German formula, from her sister who lives in Dallas, Texas.
Holle, HiPP, and Lebenswert are three very popular European formulas. But here’s the thing: European formulas are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which makes them unavailable for procurement in the United States—unless you know someone.
Muhammedi orders European formula in bulk from Dutchexpatshop.com, an online supermarket that ships products from Europe. “It’s kind of concerning,” says Muhammedi. “I don’t know exactly where the formula is coming from, it’s shipped in random boxes, and all the ingredients are in German, so it’s hard to really know.” But she still feels like it's the best option for her son.
Through Facebook groups and word of mouth, many families get connected with, ahem, “formula providers.”
Alex Morozov is CEO of YummyGanics, an extremely popular importer of organic and specialty baby products, including formula, crackers, cereals, snacks, and teas in New York City. Morozov admits that distributing European formula to his customers in the U.S. is a bit of a grey area. That's because for a formula to be commercially imported and sold legally in the U.S., distributors are supposed to register with the FDA. However, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, this restriction does not apply to individuals who are bringing food into the U.S. or sending food directly to someone in the U.S. That is the loophole distributors like Morozov work with.
“We have a distribution warehouse in Europe, so we buy it there, repackage it, and ship it to the U.S.,” says Morozov. YummyGanics customers can text a representative who will set a shipment on its way. Products can also be purchased directly from the YummyGanics website.
It’s Popular—But Is It Necessary?
Parents might be going to significant lengths to provide their babies with European formula, but is it really worth all the trouble? European formula is costly; a three-box, 28-ounce supply will cost close to $107, which is close to double what American formulas can be purchased for.
And on top of that, pediatricians are wary.
“There is concern because these formulas are bought through third-party vendors and they do not go through the FDA or the usual safety checks that medications and formulas must go through to be sold in the U.S.,” says Michael Steiner, M.D., M.P.H, pediatrician in chief at N.C. Children’s Hospital—UNC School of Medicine.
This puts families who give their children European formula at risk, he says, because there is no way to ensure quality control during the manufacturing process or throughout shipment. Labels are in another language as well, so parents could run into problems with mixing too much or little water into the formula, says Dr. Steiner. And if there were a recall on the product in Europe, American parents would be the last to know. Third-party vendors remove any connection a buyer might have to the actual manufacturer, which increases risk, too.
At the end of the day, many parents like Muhammedi and Morozov's customers seek out European baby formula because it is organic and does not include high fructose corn syrup in the ingredients. But if all of this makes you want to reconsider ordering from a third-party, the United States does a great job of creating and selling organic formula for babies as well.
Jennifer Somer says her 2-year-old daughter, Layla, ate Baby's Only, a U.S.-based certified organic formula, during her first months of life.
“I was really bummed out that I had to give her formula because my breast milk supply was too low,” says Somer, who lives in Boca Raton, Florida. She had reservations about European formula because, “I didn’t know where it was coming from, how long it was on a truck for, where it was stored, or if it went bad.” Baby’s Only made Somer feel comfortable because it does not include corn syrup in its ingredients and mimics breast milk.
Parents are trying to do what they think is best for their children. But Dr. Steiner urges parents to consider taking the route Somer did.
“We have so many brands and formulas that have gone through the U.S. safety procedures,” says Dr. Steiner. “I don’t think there is a medical indication to go through European formula.”