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Instagram Baby Formula: Influencers Post Potentially Dangerous Recipes

Baby formulas made to order.    (Photo by Jerry Cooke/Getty Images)

As the baby food shortage continues, parents increasingly desperate for answers about what to do when they can’t find the formula they need. One trend involving medical professionals and regulatory agencies is for people to make their own formula. The Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics have warned against its use, citing a lack of balanced nutrition and the risk of harm to babies. News reports of babies being hospitalized for drinking home made or diluted formula, as parents struggle to find the products they usually use to feed their babies. But that hasn’t stopped recipes from popping up all over social media, garnering a huge number of views and likes.

A recipe with hemp seed, sea moss and medjool dates has been viewed more than 10,000 times on TikTok. In the comments, users ask the original poster, who does not claim to be a healthcare professional, for advice on introducing sea moss to a baby who has never had it before. A beautiful blond TikToker with 16,000 followers posted a video in which she holds a baby on her hip as she explains that she prepares their bottle with baby food that she has made “from scratch”. The recipe she uses calls for raw milk – which is required by law agencies discourage drinking because of the risk of pathogens – and comes from the holistic food group the Weston A. Price Foundation, which also shared misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine. (The foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the formula’s recipe. This article will be updated if they do.)

A video suggesting a mix of evaporated carnation milk, Karo syrup, baby vitamins and distilled water has been viewed a whopping 860,000 times. Another video featuring evaporated milk and corn syrup has been viewed more than 120,000 times. The combination is one of the most popular recipes bouncing on social platforms, with many users claiming it is how they or their parents were fed, before the introduction of the modern formula.

Steven Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, acknowledges that many babies were given recipes using evaporated milk before bottle feeding became the norm, but that doesn’t mean people should use that method today. “Most of them did just fine, but most aren’t good enough,” he says. “It’s just not safe at all. Just because most babies grew up with it in the 1950s doesn’t mean we want to go back to what was an inadequate way of feeding babies in the 1950s. Just because your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother survived, doesn’t mean your child will.”

Abrams recently wrote guidelines for the American Academy of Pediatrics, advising parents that if they must, they can give a baby over six months old cow’s milk for a short period of time, if they cannot find any type of formula in the shops. “The idea is that cow’s milk over six months old isn’t ideal, but for the babies who aren’t allergic, it’s really not dangerous and it’s better than homemade formulas,” he says. “If you’re doing a homemade formula, you’re mixing up a lot of things, and that puts you at risk of contamination and the risk of getting even the most basic of foods really wrong.” Abrams adds that breast milk banks affiliated with the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which typically send their supplies to NICUs to help preterm infants, have seen an increase in donations. Some can help parents in need by giving them pasteurized breast milk.

Carla Cevasco, an assistant professor of American studies at Rutgers University and historian of infant nutrition, recently posted a: Twitter thread explaining that before the invention of formula, many babies who couldn’t breastfeed died because the other options were unsafe or nutritionally incomplete. “People have always needed alternatives [to breastfeeding,]she says. “It’s just a fairly recent phenomenon that those alternatives have been safe.”

Furthermore, Cevasco stresses that just because a recipe was popular long ago, doesn’t mean it’s safe. “Speaking of the whole phenomenon of mimicking past recipes, sometimes they’re gross and sometimes they’re even dangerous,” she says. “When I look at seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cookbooks, there’s a lot of stuff in there that makes you think, oh boy, botulism. Seen through the lens of modern food safety standards, it’s like salmonella in a glass. So I think it’s just really important to listen to the advice of medical professionals about what the best next steps are to take.”

Juli Novotny, who runs the vegan recipe blog Pure Kitchen, sees no problem sharing homemade formula information with parents in need. Novotny last week posted a formula recipe to her 6,700 Instagram followers who got about 250 likes. It contains goat’s milk, carrot juice, linseed oil and nutritional yeast. She says she gave the recipe to her own baby, who is now a healthy 14-year-old. As she watched people struggle with the formula shortage, she felt it was her responsibility to share the formula alternative that worked for her. “I’m not trying to play a doctor,” she says. “I’m not saying people should do this in general. I’m not promoting this. I don’t tell people not to have a formula. I mind my business. I just thought if they can’t bottle feed, if you can give your baby something and it’s worked for someone, I don’t understand why it would be any controversy.”

Allie Seckel, a certified infant formula engineer who calls herself the Formula Fairy on social media, says it’s just never safe to make your own formula. She recently posted several videos on TikTok discouraging parents from trying DIY formulas and debunking myths about the shortage. “Babies have very specific needs,” she says. “Formula requires minimum levels of 29 nutrients, and nine of them also have maximum levels. There’s really no way to replicate those nutritional needs at home.” And then there are the food safety concerns. “There are issues with sterility and bacterial contamination,” she says. “So that’s something to be concerned about, especially if you use raw milk.”

Malori, a homesteader who runs the Black Rifle Homestead account and who asked to use only her first name, as she does on social media, says she would never use a coffee creamer recipe, and she understands why healthcare professionals would advise against it . But she also thinks that officials paint with too broad a brush when they say not to use each homemade formula. A few days ago, Malori published an affiliate post for a formula kit sold by a goat dairy, claiming it offers the first product of its kind to meet federal infant formula nutritional requirements. She is currently using to feed her second child.

Experts say this is playing with fire. According to Abrams, even if it turns out that all the nutrients are sufficient in a homemade formula, there could be other problems with feeding an infant. “It may sound like they have the right amount of nutrients, but the mixture of them cannot be absorbed by the baby,” he says. “Or some sources might not be sterile enough for the babies, so it’s just not the way to go. People keep wanting me to say, well, for a little while, just mix it up at home, and I won’t.”

Novotny, the food blogger, recognizes that people should consult a healthcare or nutritionist before trying her carrot juice and goat’s milk formula, but she still doesn’t see anything wrong with posting it publicly. “I don’t share it as a health professional,” she says. “I’m just sharing a recipe.”

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