A Nutritional Comparison between Breastmilk and Formula

A Nutritional Comparison between Breastmilk and Formula

Even though major health bodies from around the globe maintain that breastfeeding is the best way to nourish a baby, formula feeding is growing in popularity. More mothers are choosing to either stop breastfeeding early or deciding not to breastfeed at all.

Not all mothers are able to breastfeed, but it’s useful to know the nutritional differences between breast milk and formula. Here are a few examples:

Calorie content

The calorie content of breast milk is slightly higher than that of formula.


Formula usually contains slightly more minerals than breast milk, but these minerals are lower in bio-availability than those in breast milk.

Protein and carbohydrate content

Breast milk and formula have similar amounts of carbohydrates and proteins, with formula slightly higher in both than breast milk. The quality of the protein, however, is slightly higher in breast milk because the amino acid ratios are a better match for the baby’s needs. That’s why formula contains a little more protein as compensation for this difference.

Breast milk contains immune-supporting proteins like IgG and IgA that are not found in formula. These proteins are antibodies that support the baby’s immune system and protect them against infection. This is not the case with formula.

Milk is made up of curds (solids) and whey (liquid). Breast milk has more whey than curds, which in turn are softer and more easily digested. The result of this is that breastfed babies get hungrier more quickly than formula-fed babies. This results in breastfed babies being fed more often, arguably forging a closer bond between mother and child.

Formula is made mainly of cow’s milk, which is made up of casein proteins. These form a rubbery curd mass in the infant’s stomach, making it far more difficult to digest than breast milk. It also results in more stools, as well as constipation, gas, and other digestive problems. The cow’s milk in formula is also hard on the baby’s kidneys.

While similar in carbohydrate content, breast milk contains a lot more oligosaccharides. These are prebiotics that helps to populate the baby’s gut with beneficial bacteria, which are essential for a healthy digestive system and much more.

Fatty acids

Formula contains far fewer fatty acids, and therefore fewer calories and fewer essential fatty acids. The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA contained in breast milk are critical for the baby’s brain development.


Cholesterol is necessary for the manufacture of nerve tissue in the baby’s growing brain. It provides the essential components necessary for the manufacture of myelin, which makes up the fatty sheath surrounding some nerve fibers.

Myelin is essential for the transmission of nervous impulses from one part of the brain to the other, or from the brain to the body. Breast milk contains high levels of cholesterol. It’s also an interesting fact that if the mother’s diet does not provide sufficient fats for her milk, her breasts are able to make them whenever needed. On the other hand, formula contains no cholesterol, a fact that might predispose the child to develop heart disease and central nervous system diseases as an adult.


Formula contains much higher levels of all vitamins than breast milk. Most of the vitamins in formula, however, are synthetic. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that almost all synthetic vitamins are not absorbed as well as vitamins in their natural form.

Apart from the fact that the vitamins in formula are synthetic, there are other factors that affect the value and bioavailability of nutrients. For example, the vitamin K in formula is the K1 version, while it comes in the K2 form in breast milk.

K1 needs to be converted to K2 before the body can use it, but the conversion process isn’t very efficient and varies considerably according to the digestive system and its probiotic population. K2 is far more biologically valuable than K1.