Sugar and Carbs in Baby Formula

Many parents out there are lured in by those product claims of ‘no added sugar’, but this often causes confusion over how important carbohydrates are for your child’s development. So, let’s take a deep dive into the importance of carbs and the truth about sugar…


We need sugar!

It is important to realise that when sugar is mentioned with regard to baby formula, it may not actually mean table sugar that you pour directly into your tea. It often refers to the nutrient group, saccharides, which often end in -ose so are easy to spot. These include fruit sugar (fructose), starch sugar (glucose), milk sugar (lactose), and cane sugar (sucrose). These sugar components are a source of carbohydrates, and they must appear in some form for formula to mimic natural breast milk.

Did you know that over 33% of the calories within breast milk come in the form of lactose sugar, which is why the EC and FDA both state that 40% of baby formula calories must come from carbohydrates. Your child needs these calories for energy and metabolism, as they break the carbohydrates down to create energy which can then be used for development and growth. Essentially, without carbs, your baby wouldn’t have the energy they need to grow and learn.


The type of sugar

The US has some restrictions over which sugars can be used to provide the 40% calorie mark, meaning there is debate over which carb source is the best. It is often even discussed whether the type of sugar matters, so let’s take a look at the options.



This is hands down the best sugar for your child. Why? Because it is the sugar naturally found in breast milk. Your baby is literally designed to be able to digest this carb source as the vast majority of children are born with lactose enzymes. Formulas often attempt to mimic breast milk as much as they can, so lactose is a common sugar to be found. In fact, the European Commission even state that lactose must be the primary carb source in standard formula.


Corn Syrup Solids

This really depends on where you live and what product you buy. Corn syrup solids are banned by the EC but allowed by the FDA in the United States. You will find corn syrup as the primary carb source in many US products, which is controversial as it is often made from genetically-modified corn. The corn syrup is dehydrated to remove the water and turn it into a concentrated sugar solid, and is often used because it is readily available and cheap. Corn syrup is a glucose (starch sugar) and even though it sounds similar, it is not the same as high-fructose corn syrup (which is a blend of fructose and glucose).

Studies have reinforced that corn syrup solids do give your child the calories they need and are safe to consume, despite the controversy. Corn syrup is also known as a fast-acting carb, meaning it increases your blood sugar level at a fast rate, which is why it is provided in tablet form to those with low blood sugar.


The Glycemic Index

Corn syrup solids and other fast-acting carbohydrates rank high on the glycemic index, with the value being found by calculating how quickly 50g increases the level of sugar within a person’s blood.

The Glycemic Index Foundation state: “The Glycemic Index (GI) is a relative ranking of carbohydrates in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels. Carbohydrates with a low GI value are more slowly digested, absorbed, and metabolized and cause a lower and slower rise in blood glucose and, therefore usually, insulin levels.”

The quicker blood sugar levels are increased by a carbohydrate, the more insulin the body creates in order to metabolize that sugar. And, as we said before, children are already set up to metabolize lactose (46 on the Glycemic Index). However, glucose comes in at a GI of 100. So glucose actually raises blood sugar levels at twice the speed of lactose.

Therefore, lactose is metabolized slower than glucose, which helps to maintain insulin and blood sugar alike. Yes, babies can usually deal with the 100 GI of glucose, but human beings are now specifically designed to deal with those levels at such a young age. There have also not yet been any studies into long-term impacts.



Most people think about sucrose when they think about sugar – even the name sounds similar. This is the table sugar we are all used to seeing on our counters. And it may sound like a strange choice for baby formula, but it is actually preferred to glucose like corn syrup solids. The GI of sucrose is 65, so it is metabolized slower than glucose and it is not banned by the European Commission either. However, there are limits in terms of when it can be used and how much can be used as an ingredient in infant formula. If fully-lactose formula is not on the cards for you, then sucrose, albeit not the optimal choice, is not the worst choice either.



Maltodextrin actually has a higher GI value than even glucose, however, because it has broken down sugar molecules, it is still easier to digest and is a preferred option for sensitive tummies. The corn derivative is either used as a primary carbohydrate source, supplemental carbohydrate source, or thickener/natural preservative.

It is not usually used as the largest carb source in baby formula, unless the child is not able to digest carbs from other sugar sources. The glycemic value of maltodextrin is very high and the vast majority of the US supply is genetically modified. However, it is safe to use as an additive or supplement and is certified organic in European products. Therefore, European products with maltodextrin are much better than US versions.



Remember, all babies need sugar and carbohydrates to grow and learn. If possible, lactose is the best choice for this job because it mimics breast milk. However, if this is not possible then sucrose formula or organic and non-GMO maltodextrin products are good options – with corn syrup solids as the last resort. If you are looking for the best formula products featuring the above, look no further than our range of HiPP, Holle, Jovie and Premibio formulas!

And please feel free to get in touch if you have any further questions.