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The Right Formula?

Soy Milk vs. Cow's Milk
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Going too far?

Some experts contend that the anti-soy campaigns have gone too far. Kenneth D.R. Setchell, PhD, a researcher and professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, believes the fears about soy milk causing developmental problems are unfounded. He points out that the studies that sparked the New Zealand outcry were done in animals, not people. And while soy can cause some endocrine disruptions in animals, humans metabolize soy very differently, he says.

If soy formulas caused problems, Setchell says, physicians would have noticed it by now. Soy milk has been given to infants for centuries in Asian countries, according to the AAP, and in this country since 1909.

Setchell's views are supported by British pediatrician Charles Essex, MD, who wrote in the Aug. 31, 1996, British Medical Journal that there is virtually no data on the effects of phytoestrogens on children. He also noted that pediatricians have not reported large numbers of male infants developing breasts or other female traits because of soy formula. Still, he acknowledged that the long-term effects of soy are not known.

Comparing formulas

Nutritionally speaking, soy and cow's milk formulas are similar. Both include vitamins A, D, E, and K. The main difference is in their protein and sugar make-up.

Cow's milk is processed into formula by heating and other methods that make the animal proteins in the milk more digestible. Supplemental milk sugar (lactose) is added to mimic the higher sugar content of breast milk. Finally, the fat (butterfat) is removed and replaced with vegetable oils or animal fats, which are also easier to digest.

Soy formulas, which contain plant proteins and glucose or sucrose (rather than lactose), have changed greatly since they were first introduced. In the past, they included soy flour, which led to diarrhea, excess gas, and fussiness. Today, the formulas contain a soy protein isolate, which reduces the frequency of gastrointestinal problems.

The quality of protein in cow's milk formulas is a bit better than that in soy, but neither type is as good as that in breast milk, says the AAP. And lactose-free cow's milk formulations are now available for infants that are lactose intolerant.

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