Mothers who don’t breastfeed but find their babies are lactose-intolerant and so can’t be fed with cow’s milk are in a bind.
Nondairy baby formulas are mostly based on soy, which may eliminate the lactose intolerance issue but comes with its own package of health problems, according to Uriel Kesler and Hamutal Yitzhak, owners of Heart Baby Food, a company that has developed a line of health-oriented baby products like whole-grain cookies, baby bottles free of the chemical BPA, and other items.
“Soy formula is usually seen as a last resort because of possible hormonal effects of soy powerful phytoestrogens,” said Yitzhak, “while the other alternative, hydrolyzed protein formula, has a very sour taste and is very expensive.”
Instead, the company has a better idea: a new formulation based on almonds and a second “mystery plant” that the company is keeping a closely guarded secret.
The formula, called INDI (Innovative Non Dairy Infant formula) is “safe, inexpensive, and does not cause the problems that are associated with other non-milk formulas,” said Kesler. “Our unique combination of two plant sources, in the right proportion, provides the solution.”
Both Yitzhak and Kesler are baby product pros. Yitzhak was previously Israel’s category manager for Similac infant formula at Abbott Labs, and Kesler handled consumer products and baby food for Promedico.
“When I worked for Similac, I saw that 50 percent of moms were switching formulas all the time because their babies were having symptoms of one kind or another, and the doctors really don’t have anything to tell them,” said Yitzhak, who was one of the first to produce plastic baby bottles that did not contain the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA), which can leach into liquids and cause health problems.
The impetus to to create the formula came after Kesler discovered that his granddaughter – whom her mother was unable to breastfeed – was lactose-intolerant and reacted poorly to commercially produced vegetarian formulas. He made her a drink out of nutritious almond paste – not watery store-bought almond milk — that she liked and tolerated well.
Thus was born the effort to produce a commercial version of an almond-based formula. Kesler and Yitzhak rented space at a lab in the Technion and began experimenting – discovering that despite its good nutritional value, almond paste alone did not fulfill government regulations and recommended intake governing the precise ratio of protein, fat and fatty acids, carbs and essential amino acids in infant formula. In addition, the paste’s oily texture wasn’t right for a bottle-fed formula.
They then spent nine months transforming their novel plant-based blend into a dissolvable powder that mixes well with the right amount of water and has an appealing taste, texture, color and viscosity.
Kesler and Yitzhak got a thumbs-up for their formula from experts including Prof. Ron Shaoul, head of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Rambam Healthcare Campus in Haifa, and chief dietician Brigitte Kohavi from the Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. In tests, the product has proven easy to digest for babies, both lactose-intolerant and otherwise.
The formula is currently being evaluated by health authorities in Israel and elsewhere, and clinical tests are set to begin this year. The formula is now being produced in limited quantity at infant formula manufacturing sites. Kesler and Yitzhak are seeking funds to complete the trials.
According to Shaoul, there is a great need for a nutritious, vegetable-based formula; with hormones added to milk showing up in infant formula, even lactose-tolerant babies would be better off with a vegetarian alternative. “Commercial preparations such as soy milk, rice milk or almond milk, or various homemade vegetable-based ‘milks,’ are not suitable for infant feeding and may damage a baby’s growth and development and result in severe situations of nutritional deficiency,” said Shaoul.
“Soy today is the main alternative to dairy products in infant formula, but soy contains 40 times the amount of phytoestrogens as breast milk,” Shaoul added. “Concerns have been raised that phytoestrogens may have an adverse effect on infant and child health in the areas of growth, sexual maturation and development, bone health and impact on thyroid function. Therefore, we need an herbal alternative that will satisfy babies’ nutritional needs. And that’s the idea behind INDI.”