Picture a new mother who finds that pumping breast milk every few hours is not working at the office. To supplement her baby's diet, she considers two options: infant formula from a box, or a homemade version using organic ingredients.
While the latter may sound wholesome, homemade baby formula is not a safe substitute for breast milk, three major Canadian health organizations warn.
In an advisory released on Wednesday, Health Canada, the Canadian Paediatric Society and Dietitians of Canada caution that homemade formulas have been linked to malnourishment and fatal illnesses in infants. No cases have been reported in Canada. Nevertheless, health professionals expressed concern that DIY infant formula may be a growing trend.
Hundreds of recipes for homemade baby formula are online, with main ingredients consisting of everything from raw milk to chia seeds, coconut fat and meat broth.
"We've been alarmed by the proliferation and promotion of these alternative practices on the internet," said Tanis Fenton, adjunct assistant professor at the University of Calgary and a spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada.
Recipes for homemade formula may appeal to mothers wary of processed foods. "They want to eat local, they want to eat healthy, and those are terrific goals," Dr. Fenton said. But she underlined that the benefits of cooking from scratch do not apply to infants.
Babies have specific nutritional needs. Makers of commercial formulas add precise amounts of vitamins and minerals and alter the ratios of proteins and fats in ingredients such as cow's milk to achieve nutritional value that approaches that of breast milk, she explained. Homemade formulas carry the risk of nutritional deficiencies, toxicity from too much added vitamins, and microbial contamination.
"The safe alternative [to breastfeeding] is commercial formula," Dr. Fenton said.
But Erin Mahl, mother of two and a fashion director for a Vancouver clothing label, said she is dismayed by the advisory. "I just don't feel like powered formula is good for my kids," she said. When Ms. Mahl returned to work six months after the birth of each child, she continued breastfeeding but supplemented with homemade formula using a recipe endorsed by the Weston A. Price Foundation, a U.S. non-profit organization that advocates consuming unpasteurized milk and grass-fed beef.
Ms. Mahl said her naturopath was "totally on board" with the recipe, which included ingredients such as homemade whey, probiotics, coconut oil and cod liver oil. Ms. Mahl questioned why Canadian health authorities are warning people against making their own food.
"Who are we trying to keep in business here?" she said.
Dietitians including Dr. Fenton say there is no reason to fear commercial infant formulas in Canada.
"The ingredients can look long and scary, but those are actually the chemical names of essential nutrients," Dr. Fenton explained.
While U.S. websites may warn about growth hormone in cow's milk, cattle in Canada are not given growth hormone, she pointed out.
Lynne Underhill, chief of nutrition in Health Canada's premarket assessment division, noted "commercial infant formula is one of the most tightly regulated food products sold in Canada." Manufacturers and distributors must show evidence of nutritional value and safety based on the results of clinical trials in hospitals, Ms. Underhill said.
Food additives in infant formulas are limited to trace amounts of antioxidants for preservation and emulsifiers to keep the product well blended, she said.