Research on Baby Formula Being Linked to Diabetes

Woman's hand holding scoop of baby formula in front of a can and bottle

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For a long time, scientists have wondered if there could be a link between baby formula and type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, unfortunately, appears to be on the rise in children, and doctors and experts in the medical community have been trying to uncover if there could be a common link to explain that rise. One of those possible links, doctors theorized, could be the use of baby formula.

Baby Formula and Type 1 Diabetes

There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Type 2 diabetes is more commonly found in adults, and it's largely a lifestyle-driven disease; poor nutrition and eating habits, obesity, and an inactive lifestyle can all contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes in an adult. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body’s cells become resistant to the insulin produced by the pancreas. Insulin helps move sugar from the blood into cells, and when cells become resistant to insulin, not enough sugar actually gets into cells and sugar levels in the blood rise too high.

Type 1 diabetes, however, isn't caused by a person's lifestyle or eating habits. Instead, it's an autoimmune disorder that typically develops in children or young adults. The disorder is thought to arise as a result of different environmental "triggers," such as an infection, a virus, or even an individual's own genes causing the body to develop diabetes. With type 1 diabetes, the body destroys its own pancreas cells, leaving the individual without any way to produce necessary insulin in the body. As opposed to type 2 diabetes, where the insulin doesn’t do its job, in type 1 diabetes there is not enough insulin to move sugar from the blood into cells, again causing sugar levels in the blood to go up too high.

Different Types of Diabetes

  • Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition that is generally diagnosed in children or young adults.
  • Type 2 diabetes is generally diagnosed in adults and is associated with lifestyle factors such as obesity and poor diet.

In 2010, Finnish researchers completed a study that found that the same antibodies that are present in type 1 diabetes were also more common in babies who drank formula made from cow's milk, as compared to babies who had a formula in which those milk proteins were broken down. This led researchers to wonder if something in the whole milk proteins was triggering the body's autoimmune system and causing diabetes.

To test their theory, they decided to do another study and look at the link between a baby formula that had whole cow milk proteins and formula that had pre-digested cow milk proteins, a type of baby formula called hydrolyzed formula.

Disproving the Link Between Cow's Milk and Type 1 Diabetes

The second study was done over a period of 15 years, observing children over the course of their childhood and examining the rates of type 1 diabetes among children who had a regular formula and the hydrolyzed formula as infants. The results were very conclusive.

Researchers found that there was absolutely no difference in type 1 diabetes among children who had regular cow's milk baby formula and those who had been fed the more broken down hydrolyzed baby formula.

The rates of type 1 diabetes between the two groups suggested that there was no link between diabetes and the baby formula at all. And while this is good news for families that use baby formula, it still leaves a lot of research that needs to be done on what is causing the rise of Type 1 diabetes in children.

A Word From Verywell

With the incidence of Type 1 diabetes on the rise in children, the fact that doctors and scientists are looking for more clues about what may be causing the increase in the disorder is a good sign; Type 1 diabetes is devastating to many families and without a cure, it can be a difficult disorder to manage.

Doctors have wondered if there may be a possible link between a baby formula that uses cow's milk proteins as a base ingredient, due to its ability to trigger the autoimmune system in the body. A new study, however, disproves that theory. At the moment, there is no link between cow's milk-based baby formula and Type 1 diabetes.

So, to all you formula-feeding moms and dads, don't worry—this is one long-held theory that might have caused unnecessary fears in parents. If the formula is the right choice for your family, you can keep using the formula for your little one and know that you are making a safe and healthy choice for his or her nutrition.

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Article Sources
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  • Finnish TRIGR Study Group. (2010, November 11). Dietary intervention in infancy and later signs of beta-cell autoimmunityN Engl J Med. 363(20):1900-8. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1004809.

  • Gale, A.M., Edwin, The rise of childhood type 1 diabetes in the 20th century. Diabetes, 51 (12) 3353-3361; DOI: 10.2337/diabetes.51.12.3353
  • Writing Group for the TRIGR Study Group. (2018, Jan). Effect of Hydrolyzed Infant Formula vs Conventional Formula on Risk of Type 1 DiabetesThe TRIGR Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2018;319(1):38–48. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.19826