Why are there brown specks in baby formula?

It happens to a lot of parents. You’re preparing a bottle (Dr. Brown's hopefully!) for your baby when you spot a tiny, brown dot in the milk. Where could it have come from? How did an apparently foreign contaminate get mixed into your baby’s formula? 

When we first noticed the brown floaters, we assumed that we had accidentally contaminated the formula ourselves. But despite our future caution, the specks just kept popping up. That’s when we got worried. Something was in the formula, and we wanted to know what it was.

As it turns out, the brown spots appear in all kinds of formula, including Enfamil, Similac, Gerber, and even store brands. And speculation about the cause gets downright ridiculous. Everything from tiny bugs to rodent fecal matter has been thrown out there by concerned parents on the internet. 

But what’s really going on here? Well, take a deep breath and relax because the little brown floaters have nothing to do with feces or bugs. The floaters are just a harmless byproduct of how formula is manufactured.

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Most baby formula manufacturers use a whey concentrate to make baby formula. Whey is a milky substance that is left over after cheese is made. (Think about Little Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey.)  Other nutrients (and potentially fatty acids) are mixed into the whey, and then that mixture is sent through a large dryer (called a spray dryer) to make it into powder.

The dryer needs to be very hot in order to create the powder version of the formula that you feed to your baby. And this is a very important part of the process; if the spray dryer is not hot enough, then liquid will remain in the powdered formula. And if liquid is allowed to sit in the powdered formula for long enough, then harmful bacteria could grow inside. So formula manufacturers need to ensure that spray dryer is hot enough to eliminate all liquid so that your baby receives a safe product.

That spray dryer is where the tiny brown specs come from. As the formula passes through the hot spray dryer, small pieces are occasionally burnt. And more often than not, that burnt formula is what makes up the tiny brown specks you see. It isn't a foreign contaminate; it's just some formula powder that got a bit too hot.

Thankfully, burnt formula specs are not harmful. If fact, seeing those specs may be reassuring if you understand the process. Remember, you want the dryer to be hot for your baby’s safety. Brown specks are a good indicator that the temperatures were appropriate during the spray drying process.