Sugar being poured out of a scoop

What You Need to Know About Sugar in Baby Formula

Finding breast milk alternatives is not always easy. Parents and caregivers are often surprised to see a list of unwanted ingredients on the label.

Over-the-counter baby formulas notoriously contain one or more forms of sugar listed on the  baby formula package, but is this bad? If so, why do many American formula companies continue to add this ingredient to your baby’s nutrition?

Let’s discuss the role sugars play in baby formula and if it is possible to avoid added sugars in your little one's nutrition.

Table of Contents

Why is There Sugar in Baby Formula?

To mimic breast milk, baby formulas must contain several vital ingredients, including a primary energy source.

Sugar in baby formulas is used as a simple-to-digest carbohydrate that supports your baby's growth and development, especially throughout the first year of life.

It is important to note that not every sugar in infant formula is the same. The type and amount of sugar children ingest as infants and toddlers have been shown to affect their metabolic health, food preferences, as well as long-term health.

Sugar in Baby Formula: Good vs. Bad

All baby formulas are designed to meet the required amount of carbohydrates to fulfill an infant's daily requirements.

By examining some of the most common ingredients used to provide calories in baby formulas, we can discern why some forms are better than others.

We will also take a closer look at the difference between American and European guidelines for this carbohydrate and the restrictions concerning the type and amount of sugar that may be used to provide these necessary calories in each country.

US Baby Formula vs. Europe Baby Formula

Using the carbohydrate ratio in breast milk as a guideline, the FDA (American regulation providers) and the EU (European regulation providers) requires that all baby formulas are designed with 40% of their calories from carbohydrates. 

American Baby Formula

FDA regulation on infant nutrition is less clearly defined than the EU’s stringent guidelines on baby food and formula. Ingredients banned for use in European baby formulas are easily found in American baby formulas.

Many American baby formulas are made with sucrose (table sugar composed of glucose and fructose), corn syrup solids (composed only of glucose), and other lactose substitutes.

These carbohydrate sources, which are mainly sucrose, are sweeter than lactose, have a higher glycemic index, and can be detrimental to your babies’ current and future health.

European Baby Formula

Simply put, European infant nutrition does not use inexpensive substitutes as the prime energy component.

EU regulations honor infants by recognizing that milk sugar (lactose) is the perfect carbohydrate source for baby formula because each of us is born biologically and physiologically designed to digest it.

Types of Sugar Found in Baby Formula

Each 100 mL of breast milk comprises 6.7g of carbohydrates from lactose. This gold standard of nutrition should set the guidelines for American and European baby formula. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Other forms of sugar are approved for use in American baby formula but are avoided in Europe, including glucose, sucrose, dextrose, galactose, and maltose. Do not confuse lactose with other added sugars when reading the ingredients list.

Lactose in Baby Formula

Lactose, composed of one glucose and one galactose bonded together, is a form of sugar naturally present in breast milk and is considered the gold standard in sugar for infants.

Lactose helps form beneficial bacteria in newborns’ intestines, is low on the glycemic index, and does not boost blood sugar as much as other sugars.

To mimic breast milk, high-quality infant formula will have lactose as the main carbohydrate.


You will find the name “sucrose” added to the ingredients of baby formulas. Make no mistake; this white substance is the same as you add to your coffee or baked goods. Commonly known as table sugar, a single glucose, and a single fructose are joined to form sucrose. 

Sucrose has a 65 glycemic index (higher than lactose) and a relative sweetness rating of 100; it has the sweetest sugar of any infant formula. While “table sugar” does not sound like an ingredient you want in baby formula, it is a much better choice than glucose (corn syrup solids).

Please note that the European Commission does not prohibit sucrose in infant formula; however, it does provide limits for when it can be used (i.e., in specialty formulas that require reduced lactose for infants with sensitive stomachs) and how much can be used. 

While lactose remains the optimal carb source for infants, sucrose is as close as possible to the glycemic index.


An easily digestible carb, maltodextrin is made from corn starch (most commonly) or rice or potatoes.

It is used in baby formulas as a complex carb that helps babies build healthy muscles and feed their brain growth. It also helps thicken specialty nutrition, giving it a creamy, smooth texture similar to breastmilk and assisting hungry babies to feel satisfyingly full.

Importantly there is a misconception that, because it is often derived from corn starch, it is an empty filler or sweetener; this is untrue. Maltodextrin is a complex carbohydrate that is useful nutritionally and helps balance out calories from lactose and other energy sources.

Corn Syrup in Baby Formula: Health Concerns

Health studies show major concerns surrounding sugars in baby formula. 

Sugar in infant nutrition has been well-documented to cause childhood obesity, dental decay, and babies with inherited intolerance of fructose face a risk of acute liver failure if they have a formula that contains fructose.


Scoop by scoop, powdered formulas that contain corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup come with a risk of childhood obesity.

The experts have such a great disdain for this ingredient that they have published articles stating clearly to avoid it at all costs. Nutritionists and other doctors firmly believe that the number one cause of the childhood obesity epidemic is high fructose corn syrup.

When your baby ingests normal sugars (such as those in breastmilk, fruits, vegetables, or milk-based infant formulas), these sugars stimulate the brain with signals telling your little one that they are full.

Fructose, however, does not trigger satiety (the satisfied feeling of being full after eating) signals as glucose does. Babies will start to overeat. Unfortunately, they will not only overeat now, but will start a lifetime of overeating and health worries.


Research shows that overconsumption of non-lactose sugars can lead to type II diabetes (insulin resistance) and, eventually, heart disease. It can increase the blood level of triglycerides, the fats that clog arteries and contribute to cardiovascular disease.

It is unfathomable that the United States is the world’s highest consumer of high fructose corn syrup and ranks at the top in obesity, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Why would the US feed this dangerous ingredient to anyone, much less infants?

Dental Problems

While it takes a while for babies to get their teeth, there is a direct correlation between sugar in formula and harm to new and erupting teeth. Table sugar harms erupting teeth because plaque and bacteria release harmful acid that damages enamel when they feed on it.

Corn Syrup and high fructose corn syrup have slightly different effects. They cause more intense blood sugar spikes in your little one’s body, and immature systems tend to continually pull minerals from teeth and bones to restore balance in your body.

Since teeth lose more minerals, they are more likely to develop tooth decay.

The Glycemic Index & Why It Matters in Baby Formula

The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking system that measures the impact each type of sugar has on raising blood sugar levels.

When your little one ingests formula with sugar (any type), it is digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. This signals the pancreas to release insulin, a hormone that helps blood sugar move into the cells to be used as energy or stored. 

Too much of the wrong sugar allowed in the bloodstream all at once regularly can put too much stress on the pancreas, which can, over time, lead to serious health issuesThe higher the Glycemic Index, the faster the increase in blood sugar and the more insulin the body needs to produce to return blood sugar levels to normal.

Carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (GI) are metabolized more slowly and do not lead to the same blood sugar spikes. This allows for clean energy for physical growth and cognitive development.

Glycemic Index Chart for Sweeteners | The Milky Box

What is the Best Baby Formula

Your little ones deserve baby formulas that closely resemble the composition of breast milk. This is why the strict regulation by the European Commission mandates that lactose be the primary source of carbohydrates in all standard formulations.

You will never find dangerous ingredients like non lactose sugars listed. Only nutrition that will support present and future healthy growth and development.

The Milky Box carries European baby formulas for all digestive needs, with no toxic or worrisome additives, only the best for your baby.

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