- Veronique Greenwood
- BBC Future
Persistent shortages in the United States have shed light on a staple that most often stays out of the spotlight: infant formula (milk closest in chemical composition to a woman’s milk).
Infant formula has been making headlines in the United States lately, as the closure of one of the country’s largest manufacturing plants due to contamination has caused a severe shortage.
As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration searches for new sources of formula overseas, brings in emergency supplies, and tries to help the factory get back to business, parents fight to get what they have need to feed their babies.
The situation is shocking – on the one hand it raises the question of why such an essential product as infant formula is at the mercy of a single manufacturer – and on the other hand many people wonder what the parents in the past, before big corporations produced the product that became the backbone of so many lives.
To read especially on BBC Africa:
Unfortunately, today’s parents are far from the first in history to have to deal with this problem.
The first widely marketed infant formula, called Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies, arrived in the 1860s, but we’ve been trying to find safe alternatives to breast milk for millennia.
In the graves of young babies dating back to 6,000 years ago, archaeologists have discovered curious little horn-shaped objects, which were first thought to be tools used to fill oil lamps.
But chemical analyzes have revealed that at least some of these objects were filled not with oil but with the milk of ruminants, such as cows or sheep.
It is likely that these are containers intended for feeding infants, buried alongside them.
Because the awful truth is that breastfeeding doesn’t always work – then or now.
It is a faulty and evolved system; it’s almost as if our bodies have decided that anything that kills less than 50% of those affected is good enough to continue.
Some people’s bodies do not produce enough milk to feed a child. Some babies are born without being able to latch on properly.
Many women’s nipples are not suitable for their baby’s mouth – in a tragic episode recounted in the diary of Samuel Pepys, the great diarist of 1660s London, he describes a new mother as having no nipples, which is perhaps a way of describing what are now called inverted nipples, which can make breastfeeding more difficult. Her baby soon died.
Before modern medicine, babies died all the time, for all kinds of reasons.
But if the baby and the mother failed to get enough milk from the breast, it was often a shortcut to the grave for the infant, because the other solutions weren’t great.
In the early 19th century, unhygienic feeding containers and unsafe storage of animal milk led to the death of a third of bottle-fed babies, according to one report.
Sometimes another nursing mother was available, and for many babies, professional “nurses” were their lifeline.
At different times in history, wet nurses, that is, women who breastfeed babies in a professional capacity, have been a thriving industry in their own right, complete with credentials and medical examinations.
But once sterilizable bottles and rubber teats were invented later in the 19th century, European and American parents seem to have abandoned breastfeeding as an alternative.
Now that the feeding containers could be secured, it was time to think about their contents.
Liebig’s formula, invented by a German chemist, contained cow’s milk, malt flour, wheat flour and potassium bicarbonate.
About 20 years later, in 1883, there were 27 infant formulas on the market, according to a history.
An early analysis found that cow’s milk had more protein and fewer carbohydrates than human milk, so many formulas aimed to dilute cow’s milk and nutritionally adjust it to resemble more breast milk.
However, many people made their own formula at home.
In fact, in the early 20th century, doctors were taught to mix formulas of milk, water, and sugar, using a calculation of two ounces (56 g) of milk, 1/8 ounce of sugar (3 g) and three ounces (84 g) of water per pound of baby’s body weight per day.
Likewise, studies have shown that evaporated milk formulas, based on the amazing discovery of heating milk to very high temperatures to concentrate it and break down proteins, are a reasonable way to feed babies.
Today’s formula shortage has prompted some desperate parents in the United States to seek out old recipes for making their own formula – but experts strongly advise against it, as homemade substitutes can be dangerous and potentially lead to infections. death or malnutrition.
The balance between carbohydrates and protein was far from the only difference between breast milk and early versions of infant formula.
Gradually, over the past century, nutritionists, doctors and researchers have changed and redesigned the composition of proprietary formulas, such as those used today, to make them more like breast milk.
Vitamins came first. Cod liver oil has been added, along with blends of fats from various sources.
It took a while for people who used the cheap, easy option of evaporated milk formulas to take notice, but by the 1950s, patented formulas like Similac, which had been invented in the 1950s 1920, began to gain ground.
Formula was no longer just a stopgap, but a kind of superfood, capable of providing a kaleidoscope of nutrients.
By the 1970s, patented formulas were extremely popular in the United States, for various reasons, and breastfeeding rates were plummeting.
Rates have since rebounded — 84% of babies born in the United States in 2017 were breastfed for some time — but formula is here to stay.
While replacing breastmilk may have initially been a food of despair, having an alternative has drastically changed the lives of parents of all kinds for the better.
The disadvantages of an industrial product for baby food include the type of difficulties that American parents are currently facing.
A few years ago, Chinese parents faced a different kind of difficulty, when it was revealed that formula manufacturers there had knowingly adulterated the product with melamine, which damages babies’ kidneys. , to reduce costs.
The benefits of mass food production – standardized and controlled quality – are sometimes outweighed by the system’s vulnerability to production stoppages and greed.
When parents go through this crisis, they may face the kind of advice I received when I gave birth in the early days of the pandemic and there were no stores open or deliveries: if you need formula, the nurse said, do what they used to do, and make your own.
Luckily, I didn’t have to search for evaporated milk and fumble around with fractions of an ounce, only to come up with a potentially dangerous concoction. But it reminded me that our current installation is new, after all.