Yikes! You’ve just found a brown lump, clump, or spec in your baby’s formula. It doesn’t look or feel right and it definitely doesn’t seem to belong there.
But what is this unidentified floating object? And is it of concern to you and your baby?
Your Answer in Brief:
Brown clumps, lumps, and large specs in infant formulas are either:
- A. A harmless result of the heating and drying process required to make the infant formula, or
- B. A foreign body that entered the formula during its manufacture or after you opened it.
In a vast majority of cases, the spec or clump is the former—harmless scorched formula—but an all-encompassing “A-okay” for all such strange particles would be inaccurate.
- If the spec or clump breaks into coarse powder when crushed, it is the former—harmless scorched formula. (Dissolving it in hot water is another telling sign: If it dissolves, it’s formula.)
- If the spec or clump doesn’t break up when pressed, doesn’t dissolve in hot water, or smells musky or moldy, it’s a foreign particle of some other type.
- If the spec appears in prepared formulas (i.e., powdered formula that has since been mixed with water), mold as a clump or particle becomes much more likely, especially if that formula has been left out, usually for at least 24 hours.
“It is likely that the specks that you’re seeing are overcooked specks of formula.”Nestlé. World’s largest infant formula manufacturer and the parent company of Gerber.
Brown Specs can be Black, Orange, Red or Other Colors
Answers (A) and (B) above apply to clumps, lumps, and formula bumps of all colors. You may see these discolored clumps while preparing your formula (while it’s still dry), but you’ll usually see them after the formula is prepped (and your baby has finished it.)
Benign (harmless) “brown” specs or lumps caused by the infant formula manufacturing process, may actually be a variety of colors, including:
- Black or blackish
- Brown, usually dark brown
- Dark orange or rust-colored
- Red or burnt sienna
Clump Color Exceptions:
There are two exceptions to the colors listed above for scorched formula: Off-white or yellow clumps, and green-colored clumps have different sources:
- Off-white or yellow clumps or specs are almost always simply an indication that the prepared formula (your mixed bottle) just needs to be more vigorously shaken.
Bubbles are perfectly normal and will settle. Shake away.
To prevent off-white or light yellow clumps from appearing in the mixed formula:
- Fill the baby bottle with water first.
- Then, add formula.
- Cap bottle and shake it immediately and well.
- Green specs or clumps are most likely mold. Green specs are most likely to appear in baby bottles where the last bits of formula were left for more than several hours.
If you find green specs or clumps in your unprepared (dry/packaged) infant formula, you’ll want to very strongly consider throwing away the remainder of the formula canister as a green clump is more likely to be mold than a burnt or scorched clump of formula. (During hours of looking into formula clumps and discoloration, all parents and customers reporting green clumps believed them to be mold.)
What Causes the Brown Specs?
When baby formula is heated, dried, and powdered, it may be burnt. The manufacturing process involved in all types of powdered infant formulas requires a drying step that converts the mixed liquid ingredients into the coarse powder you see in its final form.
Safety of Discolored Clumps in Powdered Formula
Assuming the specs or clumps found in a specific instance are localized and not a general discoloration and that these clumps are from the formula’s manufacturing process and its drying/cooking process, then they present no risk.
They are simply slightly burnt formula powder that clumped up upon scorching.
“There are no harmful effects associated with scorched particles.”– Nestlé. World’s largest infant formula manufacturer and the parent company of Gerber.
However, if the discoloration is present in more than a few specs or small clumps, the entire package may be spoiled. Foul smells may also be present. If you suspect discoloration may be due to something other than a simple overheating of the product during manufacture, discarding it may be safest and bring the most peace of mind.
Parents should also consider whether they should hold onto the unused portion of formula in case their baby develops symptoms which the unused formula might help their pediatrician assess.
Note that powdered infant formula is inherently not sterile to begin with and that, despite peppy marketing, breastfeeding is vastly superior to it.
Infant Formula Brands Affected
Brown specs and small discolored clumps in baby formula aren’t limited to any one manufacturer. Users of several baby formula brands have reportedly found these harmless clumps in:
- Most name-brand infant formula brands (so far excluding Gerber).
- Storebought infant formula brands.
It’s also important to note that brown specs are very rare and are typically completely harmless.
Could the Brown Specs be Something Else?
Yes, though it is highly unlikely. Unfortunately, you will have to make the call as to what the discolored spec or particle might be in your particular case. The information under “Your Answer in Brief,” at the beginning of this article should help you determine that.
Fortunately, however, the manufacturing process and plants involved in making many of the most popular brand name and generic powdered baby formulas are U.S.-based facilities that are pretty ingeniously designed to prevent contamination or foreign matter from entering the assembly line and any finished infant formula.
Nevertheless, there is always the possibility you’ve found something unique that isn’t really worth “testing” on your baby. You might feel safer just returning the formula for—hopefully—a full refund or replacement.
Mom < Brown Spec Specialist
You’re likely the only one home and will need to personally determine what the brown spec is and whether to proceed with feeding or return the formula for a refund and replacement.
If It’s Time for a Return or Refund
Despite varying store policies on returning infant formulas, your best option is usually to bring in the unfinished product along with a receipt if you still have it, and simply explain what occurred and what you found.
If it is a store-bought brand, like Target’s Up&Up or Walmart’s Parent’s Choice, well, that store is the formula’s only sales point, not to mention its manufacturer, so an exchange or coupon would be in order.
Postscript: Black Specs in 72 Cans of Similac Were ‘Absolutely Harmless’ Food Lacquer (1985)
In February 1985, UPI reported that the “unidentified black specks” then found in 72 cans of Similac baby formula at a Massachusetts supermarket were “absolutely harmless” according to Abott’s then-VP, David Jones. “’It is small specks of food lacquer that broke loose from the inside of the can as a result of opening the can with a dull can opener. They’re absolutely harmless. The lacquer is designed and tested and approved throughout the food industry,” Abott VP David Jones told UPI. City Health Commissioner Bolduc added that the “black specks” could have been “material that wasn’t fully dissolved.”
1. Nestlé, There are black specs in my powdered formula, March 31, 2021; 2. Reuters, Nestle reorganizes infant nutrition business, November 14, 2017; 3. Enfamil, Feeding your premature baby; 4. World Health Organization, How to Prepare Powdered Infant Formula in Care Settings, 2007; 5. United Press International, Inc., The unidentified black specks found in cans of Similac..., February 8, 1985