When my baby boy was just a day or two old, the doctors in the hospital told us he had lost too much weight and we should supplement his breast milk with a little formula. They gave us a six-pack of ready-to-drink bottles of Enfamil, and when we got home we bought a few more for occasional use. Three months later, my wife stopped breastfeeding and I started seriously stocking up on Enfamil powder.
Only later, after the baby turned 1 and we switched him to cow's milk, did I find out that I was probably wasting a bundle of money buying this name-brand formula. Generic formula is strictly regulated, has virtually identical ingredients, and can be 30 percent cheaper than name-brand options.
There's very little difference between baby formula brands
The Food and Drug Administration strictly regulates nutritional standards for infant formula, leaving little room for variation among manufacturers. Last week I went down to my local CVS and found its store-brand formula costs about 63 percent of what it charges for Enfamil and has the exact same top eight ingredients.
In addition to Mead Johnson's Enfamil, the other big name-brand formula is Abbott Laboratories' Similac. The main difference, ingredients-wise, seems to be that high-oleic safflower oil is a prominent ingredient in Similac whereas Enfamil uses a more generic blend of vegetable oils. Whether babies care about this difference, I couldn't say. But CVS carries a second store-brand of formula that imitates Similac's ingredients list — for about 30 percent less money.
Back in 1999 when generic infant formula was new, Michael Brick reported for the New York Times that infant formula "seems like a marketplace ripe for an upstart that is ready to strip away the fancy marketing and sell formula for less."
But to a striking extent, that isn't really how things played out over the next 16 years.
The market share of store-brand formulas has risen, but it's still only about 12 percent — pretty minuscule for a market with little commercial advertising, no conspicuous consumption, and what amounts to a legal prohibition on product innovation.
Hospitals help formula companies market to new parents
The reason likely goes back to that six-pack of Enfamil we got in the hospital. Parents of babies are averse to change and inclined to assume that doctor knows best. If you're given a certain brand of formula in the hospital and your baby drinks it, why bother trying anything else? That's why for years the formula companies have worked with hospitals to stock their products and give them away to new moms.
In recent years there's been political pressure to curtail the giveaways as part of a national push to promote breastfeeding. And it seems to be working, as fewer and fewer hospitals are discharging new moms with formula. The actual science behind this breastfeeding push seems highly questionable to me, but it's good to see hospitals less enmeshed in marketing schemes for overpriced products one way or another.
But even hospitals that don't discharge new moms with formula still have some on hand for babies who need it, as mine did, and it seems they are still likely to partner with the major brands that are doing giveaways to build consumer loyalty for the long term.
It worked on me, but now you know better — if you're going to give your baby some formula, don't blindly stick with what some nurse randomly handed you. Give a much cheaper — and nutritionally identical — store brand a shot, and you could save a lot of money.