The Nutrition Diva's Quick and Dirty Tips for Eating Well and Feeling Fabulous

What to do if you can’t find baby formula

Episode Summary

As increasingly desperate parents are unable to find infant formula, DIY recipes are circulating online. Here’s why that’s not a good idea.

Episode Notes

As increasingly desperate parents are unable to find infant formula, DIY recipes are circulating online. Here’s why that’s not a good idea. Plus, Grammar Girl joins for a  quick chat on  "healthy" versus "healthfully."

Nutrition Diva is hosted by Monica Reinagel. A transcript is available at Simplecast.

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Nutrition Diva is a part of Quick and Dirty Tips.


Episode Transcription

Hello and welcome to the Nutrition Diva Podcast. I’m your host Monica Reinagel with an answer to a listener question AND at the end, a guest appearance from my friend Mignon Fogarty of the Grammar Girl podcast to talk about a grammar-related comment that one of my listeners sent to me. But first, 

Nikki writes with a question about the current shortage of baby formula. “I recall a recipe that was popular when I had my first baby, made with evaporated milk and Karo syrup. Authorities are strongly advising homemade recipes but what can parents do if none is available?”

As you’ve probably heard by now, we are experiencing a critical shortage of commercial baby formula in the U.S. It was one of those perfect storms: a huge manufacturer recall combined with ongoing supply chain issues (which has now replaced “unprecedented call volume” as the catch-all explanation for everything that goes wrong).

But the supply chain issues are real, and they were already causing spotty availability of infant formula. This, in turn, was causing nervous parents to stockpile formula. After all, infants who are not able to breastfeed are 100% dependent on infant formula for their sustenance. It’s not something you can afford to run out of, so parents weren’t taking any chances.

As you may remember from the early days of the pandemic and how difficult it was to find toilet paper, fears of shortages can quickly create actual shortages, because fear of running out causes people to start hoarding supplies.

Then, in February, we had a huge manufacturer’s recall of infant formula, due to possible bacterial contamination–and an already fragile situation turned into a full-blown crisis. At this writing, about half of the nation’s retailers are completely sold out of formula and the rest are strictly limiting purchases to discourage hoarding which–you guessed it–is creating panic and even more hoarding. It’s a mess.

So it was inevitable that recipes for DIY infant formula would start to circulate. While the sources of these recipes may have only the best of intentions, there are real dangers involved in making your own baby formula.

You could argue that even if a homemade baby formula is not perfectly nutritionally balanced or adequate, it’s still better than letting the baby starve. After all, this is not a permanent solution; we just need to get through the current crisis. But nutritional insufficiency is only one of several concerns. 

Homemade formula is also susceptible to bacterial contamination–which is one of the reasons that we’re in this mess in the first place. Infants, with their still immature immune systems, are more vulnerable to bacterial pathogens than adults. What might cause a mild case of food poisoning in an adult could potentially cause a life-threatening situation for a baby. 

Baby formula is also very carefully calibrated in terms of its osmolarity and osmolality–basically, how concentrated it is. And there’s no guarantee that these homemade formula recipes are taking this into consideration. Formula that is too concentrated can cause serious diarrhea. Formula that is too dilute can cause hyponatremia, or “water intoxication.” (So, this also means you shouldn’t add more water in an attempt to stretch your existing supply.)

But, as Nikki points out, what’s a parent supposed to do if they cannot find formula?

If your baby is older than 6 months old, it’s probably safe to supplement or even replace formula with other whole foods, including infant cereal, fruits, vegetables, and pasteurized full fat cow’s milk. Check with your pediatrician if you have any concerns.

If your baby is younger than 6 months and still dependent on infant formula for most or all of their calories and you cannot find formula, contact your pediatrician for advice. They may have formula samples that they can give you, or information about other local supply options. Breast milk banks may be another possible option.  

(If you do not have health insurance, you and/or your baby may qualify for care through Medicaid and Childrens’ Health Insurance Program (CHIP). You may also be able to get care at low or no cost through Community Health Centers. I’ve included links in the show notes to both programs.)

And help is on the way. The Federal government is working with manufacturers, distributors, regulators, and importers to address the issue from a variety of angles–and supply is already starting to increase. But, as it does, please resist the temptation to buy or store more formula than you need for a few days at a time, as this will just extend the crisis. We’re all in this together and the more we pull together, the better (and faster) we’ll get through it.  

As I mentioned, I recently got a comment from a listener with a good-natured complaint about my grammar. Mignon Fogarty invited me to talk about it with her on her Grammar Girl podcast. Here is our conversation. 

Mignon Fogarty:

I'm here today with the wonderful Monica Reinagel from the Nutrition Diva podcast and she had a listener with a question.

Monica Reinagel:

Yes, Mignon, I knew immediately that you were the person to get me out of this jam. So thank you so much for jumping in here. So this was an email I got from a listener named Shel, and he says, "I've loved your podcast for at least seven years now." And I always love it when they start by buttering you up, right?

Mignon Fogarty:

Right. So much better when they're nice about it.

Monica Reinagel:

Of course, he goes on to say, "I don't always agree with every word you say," but that's okay with me too. But here's his beef. He says, "Having been an English major in college, I cringe a bit whenever I hear you say, 'eat healthy.' Eat healthy what? Do you mean eat healthfully or eat healthful foods?" And I know what he's talking about. Right, Mignon? I'm aware of that difference, but I've always found it just so cumbersome to do what seems to be the correct thing, which would always be to say, "eat healthfully." And I feel like I've heard you say that it might actually be okay to say "eat healthy." So can you back me up here?

Mignon Fogarty:

Yes, I can. And it's so interesting. I actually didn't realize this was a usage question or a usage problem until I became Grammar Girl and then people wrote in to me about it too. So the reason that, and a lot of our listeners are probably thinking, what on earth are they talking about? Because this is something that tends to bother older people. So it was a thing that started being brought up in usage guides that came out in the late 1800s. This was the sort of the golden age of usage guides. It was the same time when experts were saying you should call a woman's dress a gown instead. They had all sorts of thoughts about language. But if you look at the history of the word, going back all the way to the 1500s, healthy was being used to mean good for you.

But these, you know, 1800s people sort of put a stake in the ground and said, you know, something that is in good condition in feeling well is healthy and something that's good for you is healthful, but it is not something that has stuck. It really hasn't. So if you look in the '40s, it was back in about the 1940s that healthy started gaining a little bit of ground on healthful. And then by 1975 or 1980, the battle was completely lost. If you look at charts of usage, healthy just becomes asymptotic in those years, it just goes almost, you know, to the moon and, you know, healthful stays like at a really low level.

Monica Reinagel:

Well, that's fascinating. I thought that healthy had just kind of taken on, had gained legitimacy by common usage as sometimes happens. That, you know, it's just easier to say it's less clumsy and enough people say it that it actually becomes proper usage. What I didn't know is that it actually predated the quote-unquote correct form.

Mignon Fogarty:


Monica Reinagel:

I didn't realize that it started out being correct and then went outta fashion and is now back in fashion. Are there other words that worked that way?

Mignon Fogarty:

Well, it's interesting because there was a third competing word way back in those days, healthsome. So healthsome was another word that was competing with healthy and healthful and it just completely fell out of favor. No one uses that anymore at all. So healthsome is just gone. Healthful is something, you know, maybe older people will use, or if you wanna sound old-timey, you know, too, you can, you know, make a joke like, "oh, this ale is quite healthsome" or "this ale is quite healthful." You know, it would sound like old-timey and, you know, even back in the late 1800s, when these usage guide experts were making a big deal out of the difference, you can tell from some of the entries that it wasn't really sticking because they had, there was a joke from a doctor who said a patient had asked him, you know, in what season were oysters healthy. And he said, well, you know, I've never heard them complain of any ailments. So even back then you can tell from jokes like that, people were using healthy to mean good for you. And then the usage experts were sort of saying, no, no you shouldn't.

Monica Reinagel:

Wow. I'm so glad we had this conversation because I'm feeling even more validated now than I was before when I thought I was just kind of backed up by common usage. Turns out this is a completely valid alternate word choice.

Mignon Fogarty:

It is. And if you look at the modern usage guides, like the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, they'll make a nod to the history of the debate, but they both say that it's completely 100% fine to use healthy to mean good for you today.

Monica Reinagel:

Great. Now I don't know whether Shel will be satisfied by that answer, but I certainly am. So thank you very much.

Mignon Fogarty:

You're welcome. I hope Shel is satisfied.

Monica Reinagel:

Okay, Shel. Remember to eat something healthy for me this week.

And that goes for everyone listening, too! 

Both the Grammar Girl and Nutrition Diva are part of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network. My show is audio-engineered by Nathan Semmes with script editing by Adam Cecil. Our team at Macmillan also includes Morgan Christianson, Davina Tomlin, and our intern Brendan Picha.

Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week!